If you’re lucky, you’ll get hit by a hurricane or a blizzard. Unlucky, it’ll be a tornado or earthquake. The difference is the advance warning. If you have any, start here. If not, skip to the next section.
1. DAYS BEFORE THE STORM
Let’s assume you didn’t prepare a disaster plan. (Which is fine, don’t worry about it. See the last section.)
As soon as you can, meet with the senior editors you trust most, preferably over pizza and/or beer. No more than 5-6 people.
Why so small and casual? Because the worst thing you can do (besides nothing) is call a general staff meeting and listen to uninformed opinions about what should be done.
In this meeting, most of the conversation is about your staff, not the storm…
• Who can really handle the work? Who gets easily distracted? Who adds melodrama to every crisis? Who exaggerates? Before you assign tasks, you need to assess the personalities on your staff. In a crisis, temperament is as important as talent.
• Where do they live? Sounds like a silly question, but once the storm hits, no one is moving. You want reports from as many places as possible, from dorms to off-campus apartment complexes. During the storm, everyone on your staff is a reporter, from designers to copyeditors.
• Who’s in charge? It’s likely the power will go out, but even if it doesn’t, electronic communication will be spotty – from email to texting to phone calls. Hopefully, you and your senior managers will hunker down in places far from each other. That enhances the odds that one of you will have the ability to communicate with your staff and update your social media and website.
You also need to go old-school and print out the following – because the last thing your staff needs during a long power outage is burning up their batteries searching for a Twitter handle….
• Staff contact list – Every conceivable way of reaching everyone, from your most dependable reporter to the most infrequent freelancer to the really weird dude who just shows up at staff meetings. Any one of them might see something newsworthy.
• Chain of command – Your staff needs to know who to reach first, and if that editor isn’t available, who to try next. It can be as simple as editor, ME, news editor, etc. But it should include all the editors. Yes, even the sports editor.
• Staff map and address list – Mark up a map with a dot representing where every staffer will ride out the storm. Attach a list of street addresses. If something awful happens out there, you need to quickly learn where the nearest staffer is.
• Source contact info – Everyone you might conceivably interview after the storm, from PIOs to student senators to assistant football coaches.
• Logins and passwords – For social media, websites, and anything else your newspaper has. You might not get back into your newsroom for a long time.
Every staffer should get a printout of the staff contact list and chain of command. If they witness something newsworthy, they’ll know who to contact and how.
Your most trusted editors should get a dead-tree copy of everything listed above. If you’re literally alone in the dark, they can keep your newspaper humming.
• Back up – Invest in a portable hard drive and back up everything important on your newsroom computers. This includes financial and advertising files as well as editorial stuff. Take it with you and cleave it to your breast.
• Spread out – If you have photo equipment, distribute it out among your most trusted staffers. It won’t do any good in a closet.
• Sleep in – You’ll be jacked up from all the preparations, but you need to relax. The real work hasn’t even started yet. Watch a movie, play video games, take a long nap. Advise your staff to do the same.
2. WHEN ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE
What not to do…
There’s no reason to go outside while the worst is happening. Seriously, the news is what people are enduring indoors.
Think about it: When those TV news idiots are getting pelted by the elements in their station-issued raincoats and parkas, do they ever say or show anything newsworthy?
After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the Associated Press added this sentence to its disaster plan: “Think safety: the first priority is your safety and the safety of your family.” There’s simply no story or glory in acting recklessly.
What you need to do…
For as long as there’s power, your readers will want to know what’s happening to their friends, coworkers, ex-lovers, and enemies. The professional media in your area won’t focus on your school beyond the broadest of strokes. You’re the only news outlet that can document in detail what’s happening to students, staff, faculty, and administrators.
That means curating social media. Usually, that’s a mundane job. Not today.
During a storm, social media is one relentless traffic jam. Filtering out the most newsworthy, most touching, and most amusing posts is God’s work and a real service to your readers. You want to be their go-to locale for social media that’s leanly assembled to tell compelling tales.
It’s also a time-sucking task that one person can’t manage for more than a couple hours without going crazy. So assign shifts. Ideally, as EIC, you’ll constantly monitor and advise, instead of curating yourself. Someone needs to stay high-level and think ahead, and that’s hard to do when your scanning hundreds of Instagram photos.
3. AFTER ALL THE HELL IS OVER
This is when the real work starts…
• Make sure your staff survived. Reach who you can, ask about their well-being, and then…
• Ask your staff to ask everyone else the same question. Your readers want to know: How did everyone else fare? Start gathering and spreading that news. How’s the university president? The starting quarterback? The student body president? What are they saying?
• As soon as it’s safe, send everyone outside. Your campus cops will likely close the streets and ban outsiders. But if you have staff in the dorms, they can step out the front door (or even look out a window) to assess the damage. Once your readers know people are safe, they’ll want to know about inanimate objects: Buildings, trees, and roads. Oblige them.
• Find the officials. Depending on the damage, your school will take its sweet time announcing when classes will resume, and even longer figuring out if lost days will be made up or written off. But you want to ask immediately – and tell your readers you did. Other questions for officials: Any rough estimates of economic or environmental damage? Any timeline for announcing those numbers?
WHAT ABOUT MANMADE DISASTERS?
Mass shootings. Plane crashes. Chemical spills. Nuclear reactor meltdowns. Riots. Unlike most natural disasters, you’ll get zero notice before tragedy strikes.
Like tornados and earthquakes, you’ll learn about manmade disasters while they’re happening (if you’re close) or after the fact (if you’re not). There’s no shortage of journalism texts on how to cover disasters in detail – here’s one of my favorites even though it’s ponderous – so let me add something I never see addressed…
Don’t try to cover everything.
On the scene of any disaster, you have limited time, access, and staff. Don’t waste it trying to re-report what pro media have already said. Just cite them as a source and focus on covering geography and generation.
That means your campus and your students, or at least choosing angles that interest readers in the late teens and early 20s. There’s no shame in quoting your local newspaper or TV station on some facts you weren’t around to acquire, especially if it means you’ve marshaled your resources to provide reporting for your target audience.
DON’T WORRY ABOUT A DISASTER PLAN
Traditional disaster plans are mostly useless for college newsrooms.
In professional media, disaster plans rely on experienced full-timers whose first obligation (after securing their family) is to start working and not stop till they’re told to stand down.
By comparison, college newsrooms are random collections of novice students with varying degrees of conflicted loyalties. They’re unpaid or under-paid, and they’re just as likely to worry about their classwork or their bill-paying retail jobs than they are about your newspaper.
I’m not saying a disaster plan is a waste of time. I am saying you probably won’t use it – especially if it contains detailed to-do lists written months ago, when your staff was comprised of completely different characters.
Many times, that plan was written by a long-gone EIC, and the paper and website have been redesigned and reimagined since then.
Another problem I’ve seen: Editors obsess about following a detailed disaster plan they didn’t even write, and it paralyzes them. They can’t improvise as the situation dictates.
If you want a practical disaster plan, copy this post and rewrite it to your liking. Resist the urge to take comfort in long checklists. Because when shit happens, you’ll do best if you can embrace the chaos.