That’s how my coverage started of the Exxon gas station fire in Millburn, N.J. last Thursday. I was at the scene before the flames were extinguished and even shot photos of the flames. If you’re a reporter who has covered a fire (or any other type of breaking news story like this), you know the drill. I called a co-worker, who was on rewrite to get the story out there.
But the similarities of how I covered breaking news at a newspaper and how we do it on the Web ends there.
When I arrived at the scene I took a photo with my phone and posted it on Twitter. The photos I initially posted on Twitter became the first photos we used with the story. But what about the photos I shot on my actual camera? We got those on the site fairly quickly too.
That’s because our news operations moved onto a patch of grass across the street from the fire. Heather Collura, the Summit editor, who was assisting me, came to the scene with her laptop and aircard. It was our mobile newsroom. I would shoot photos and then hand her the camera. She’d upload the photos. I would get new information and bring it to her to add to the story.
While most of the other reporters who were covering the story, and there were a lot of them, had to go back to their offices to file photos and, in some cases, write the story, we were filing from the scene. In fact, as some news outlets were reporting the initial facts about the fire, we had moved on to report that the fire was deemed an accident.
And that’s not to mention the user contributions. In the first moments I was at the scene, I was approached by a reader who had shot video on his cell phone. He wanted to send it to us. He later uploaded it to the story. The folks from the local Red Cross chapter uploaded photos. The police chief sent me a photo. We had more photos and video than any other place I looked online.
Locals thought of us first for this story, too, based on the phone calls and the emails. I received several phone calls on the way to the scene from people to report the fire. I got a few more at the scene. I got some emails from people alerting me to the fire.
I didn’t let the story die the day after, of course. I was back at the scene the next day to cover the demolition and proved it always pays off to go back. While I was there, the owner of the car at the center of the fire told me his experiences with the fire. I could have just called the fire department for an update (or, more likely with me, gone there), but I made sure I stopped the scene. And it paid off for me.
But isn’t that how covering local news should always work?