April 4, 2006

Citizen Journalism: Alive in Caruthersville

by at 12:17 AM

Covering the news can be grim business. All of us know this intuitively -- at Topix.net we have the data:

Last October, as Katrina ravaged New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, we saw our highest traffic levels in 2005. This made sense. Not only was Katrina arguably last year's biggest news story, but the disaster also had a huge effect on many small towns for which Topix.net was the only dedicated news source. For every New Orleans, Houston, and Gulfport, there were scores of places like Slidell, Ocean Springs , Pascagoula that were consumed by the hurricane.

People wanted to know what was happening. For those few locals that had power and internet access, the web was a natural place to turn. Relatives scoured makeshift message boards searching for friends and family. The rest of us on the sidelines pitched-in, as groups like Amazon and Craigslist led efforts to drive funds to the Red Cross and other charities. People did the best they could with what they had.

And this was frustrating for the Topix crew. While we'd put together a massive local network of news pages for every single town from Houston to Pensacola, there was no way for folks in these towns to reach out to one another. Had anyone seen their friends or loved ones? Was their house gone? Was there anything left of the town? In an age that embodies two-way communication, we had failed to break away from the static, one-way voice that had been around since the Guttenberg press.

Fast forward to April 3rd, 2006. Two tornadoes rip through Caruthersville, Missouri. For a small town of 6,636 souls, the impact of such an event is terrrifying. Folks must hunker down overnight as baseball-sized blocks of hail batter their homes, and hundred-year-old groves of forests are ripped from the ground and snapped like toothpicks.

By sunrise, we begin to see a lot of activity on the Topix forums for Caruthersville:

Cathy Scott, living 2,300 miles away in Tacoma, WA asks about her father's family. Ten minutes later, Bob Raiter responds that they are alright, and that they luckily only lost some farm equipment.

And then this long thread kicks off...

How about the Little Prairie cemetery? They lost a 60 year old tree.

How about the schools? The middle-school lost their cafeteria and the high-school was damaged pretty badly.

Lisa, a resident of the town still has internet access and power, offers to help contact folks on the ground.

Is Becky Pritchard alright? Yes, says Ann, who works with her at the Casino.

Several people ask about the Strickland family. Jennifer responds that they lost their homes but are otherwise ok, and can be found at the community center.

update: Photos posted by the Dale family of the tornado wreckage.

and the thread goes on.

For a town of less than 7,000 people, there are over 200 posts giving us the story from the front-line: Though Caruthersville has been beaten-up badly, the number of fatalities has been mercifully low.

In the end, there's no good news about a tornado. But if we can create this type of communal-network that helps ease the anxiety of long-distance relatives and gets folks re-connected?

This is the challenge and charter of the next generation of on-line news sites: Not only to inform, but to enrich and enable communities of readers with voices of their own.