Hearken case study: How Panama City’s newspaper used Hearken to create a lifeline for readers during Hurricane Michael
In the days before and after the storm devastated their community (and their newsroom) these journalists found ways to listen to and respond to audience needs.
As Hurricane Michael approached Florida in October 2018, editors at the Panama City News Herald knew providing helpful information to the community was critical. Instead of only coming up with coverage ideas on their own, or relying solely on word from officials, managing editors Eryn Dion and Katie Landeck used Hearken to collect questions from the audience. They then worked with staff to get answers to these identified needs and interests posted as quickly as possible.
The newsroom had been working with Hearken for a few months at this point, primarily for a general assignment series called Bay Asked, We Answered. Their audience was getting used to being asked to participate, and it showed.
The News Herald (a GateHouse paper) received 357 questions between Oct. 7 (the day Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency ahead of Hurricane Michael) and Nov. 15. Only 10 of those questions were about something other than the hurricane or recovery efforts.
What the journalists couldn’t have known at the start of the week: Panama City would be hit hard by this hurricane, their building would be destroyed, and staff would be left figuring out how to do their jobs in a city where many places were without electricity, internet, cell service, and other basic utilities. For eight weeks (and counting) they’ve been working through the disaster and covering the community’s recovery, with a strong focus on serving readers. As of Dec. 5, the newsroom had answered at least 97 hurricane-related questions.
Here’s what they did, and how they did it:
Sunday, Oct. 7 — the day to plan
The Panama City News Herald, along with the rest of the state, learns the governor is declaring a state of emergency for the entire Florida panhandle. At the paper, preparations include figuring out how they’re going to cover the storm’s approach and when it hits. Hearken’s public-powered process is a major part of that plan, following the success of the general assignment series and a prior topical call-out around another news event.
Getting people information they need as the storm approaches is critical, and the newsroom sees Hearken as the best tool available to them. It wouldn’t be introducing something new, instead tailoring an existing project to support the community.
Monday, Oct. 8 — the day of preparation
Dion works up a Hearken submission embed asking the community “What questions do you have before and during Hurricane Michael?”
Reporters try to prepare to answer questions, not knowing what’s going to come in. Their focus: Get information out as fast as possible “because time really was running out from the start,” Dion said.
They put the embed in a story, then share that story on Facebook and Twitter.
Questions quickly start coming in, and reporters get to work. That day, audience members ask 24 questions; 13 of them are about evacuation. There are questions about closures, emergency shelters and sandbags. And one about Domino’s pizza delivery. The News Herald answers them as quickly as possible.
Tuesday, Oct. 9 — the day before the storm hits
One of the things people most need to know is something no one can really provide: Certainty about what is to come.
“People just didn’t know what to do and there was a lot of angst,” said Landeck, the managing editor for print. “We hoped by answering questions we could help people get through it.”
Deciding between whether to evacuate or ride out the storm at home is on everyone’s mind. People ask for help interpreting the evacuation maps, to learn if they need to evacuate or not.
“It seems obvious, and sometimes you get a little frustrated when you’re getting the same thing over and over again,” Dion said. “Like, ‘What does mandatory mean?’ It means you have to do it. … Mandatory means you have to go, but they aren’t going to come drag you away. You have to find out what people are actually asking.”
Dion, the paper’s digital managing editor, is on a train headed to New York for a planned trip.
Wednesday, Oct. 10 — the day the eye of the storm passes over Panama City
The News Herald building is deemed a safe place to be during hurricanes up to Category 3, and staff prepare to cover the hurricane. News Herald editor Mike Cazalas manages coverage from the newsroom. Staff who chose to stay and help with coverage head out to cover the storm.
Landeck does an interview with the BBC as the storm is starting.
“The BBC said ‘You don’t sound worried,’” she said. “I said, ‘I really can’t fathom what’s coming, so I have no idea what I could be worried about.’ That’s the one part I got right. I could not fathom what is coming.”
Then, she and a photographer leave with someone from the sheriff’s department to see what’s happening around the city.
As the storm rips through town, she and the sheriff’s deputy take shelter at a fire station. It would be about 36 hours before she could make it back to her house.
The News Herald staff keep working to answer questions and report stories, up until the moment when it becomes too dangerous to stay where they are. At that point, staff in the field either return to the newsroom or find shelter with their sources.
The eye of the storm passes over Panama City, and the western wall of the eye severely damages the News Herald building. The roof over the pressroom is gone, and parts of the building are collapsing.
Dion arrives in New York as the storm hits Panama City. She ends up being the only staff member with reliable internet and electricity for the next several days.
Thursday, Oct. 11 — the day after the storm
Once the storm has passed, the questions pick up. Readers send in 163 questions this day, triple the amount in the three prior days combined. Many of those questions are coming from people who left the area and can’t get information about their homes, family and friends. The storm knocked out electricity and most communication services — including the major cell providers.
Dion is trying to keep things updated from afar, but there’s too much to do.
As GateHouse learns of the devastation in Panama City and the kind of help needed, they line up assistance. The Northwest Florida Daily News helps with reporting, editing, layout and preparing the pages to be sent to Montgomery, Ala., for printing.
An editor at the Daytona Beach News-Journal is tapped to provide help with Hearken questions in the immediate aftermath of the storm. The News-Journal also uses Hearken, so the editor was familiar with the process and why it’s important to continue responding to question-askers.
This prior experience and understanding was crucial, Landeck said.
“It’s just a very different mindset to have someone who’s done this and had it explained to them and knows how to do it, versus someone who walks in for the first time and sees small-scale questions in the face of a huge problem.”
Post-storm, week one
In and around Panama City, things are in crisis mode. Downed trees have made getting around very difficult. There’s little fuel. Most people’s cell phones aren’t working, so they purchase prepaid phones that are getting at least some service. This means everyone has a new number (and unless you know someone who knows someone with that number, it’s hard to reach sources). Electricity comes from generators.
In order to figure out what’s going on, reporters are having to go out into the community and wait for the source they need to show up in a place they’re likely to be found.
Staff continue to answer questions directly whenever possible. Some are answered with a direct email response, others in stories published to the website and in the print edition. But editors are also looking to the questions coming in as a way to inform their overall reporting.
“Most of our staff doesn’t have phone or email yet, but I was able to use (Hearken) to find out what the pressing needs of the community were and set people on that,” Landeck said.
One topic that emerged early: What was happening at the Bay County jail.
“I would not have realized the jails were so important to so many people,” Landeck said. “My thought was the jail is a very safely built building. That’s not something I would have prioritized coverage for.
“But what I didn’t consider was, I think there were 900 inmates in the jail at the time. That’s 900 people with families who can’t communicate with those people. So, yes, that obviously is a big deal that they’re going to want somebody with access like a newspaper to cover. A lot of those stories would have been overlooked had it not been for those questions.”
They chose not to brand many of the stories they reported from questions in the first weeks as part of Bay Asked, We Answered, because they didn’t have time to follow the full public-powered process of contacting the question-asker and working to incorporate their perspective into the story. They used these questions as evidence of what the community wanted, to help them focus their overall editorial efforts, and as proof to officials of information gaps that still existed for people connected to the region.
With the News Herald building destroyed and the pressroom badly damaged, staff work out of reporters’ homes west of the hardest hit area, where they could get a phone signal allowing them to file stories and photographs. The paper is printed in Montgomery, Ala., and they don’t miss a day of publication.
Reporters and photographers from GateHouse papers in Florida and Georgia come to assist on the ground for the three weeks following the storm.
Post-storm, week two and beyond
Questions followed people’s experience with the storm. Ahead of the storm, it was questions about preparing for it. Immediately afterward, questions about damage done and how to find people dominated. By the third day after the storm, questions about returning and recovery efforts took over.
“Right after the storm we had so many questions asking is this person OK or how do I find out about this person at this address, and there was no way for anybody to answer those questions,” Landeck said. “Anybody. Not just us. Anybody.”
People were waiting days to find things out. As long as questions about damage reports and finding people came in, Landeck kept asking state officials for that information. The major cell service providers were knocked out, Landeck said, and many people bought new phones on monthly plans with providers that still had service, making it even more difficult to find people or information.
“It took (the state) several days and we were asking that question on repeat,” Landeck said. “There were so many people asking ‘Can you find out about this person and this specific spot,’ and there was no way to do it.”
Eventually, Florida’s chief financial officer, who grew up in Panama City, created a resource that allowed the newsroom and others to find this critical kind of information.
The Hearken embed also became a reliable way for others to get in touch with the newsroom when all normal methods of communication had been knocked out. FEMA used it to pass along contact information for the person handling communications in the area, as they couldn’t tell if anyone at the paper was receiving news releases and information from them.
Their presses started up again on Oct. 19, nine days after the storm, with a temporary roof over the pressroom.
Cazalas called Hearken a godsend.
“We’ve never had anything like this in 35 years of doing this,” he said. “It was so overwhelming afterward. (The questions) focused us. We didn’t have to try to guess. We have five reporters when we’re at full staff. We didn’t have to guess what we should be out doing a story on, because people were telling us.”
There are things that staff would normally have taken a one-and-done approach to, he said, and moved on. Like giving people information about how to get in touch with FEMA, or when utilities are coming back on.
“People kept asking about FEMA,” Cazalas said. “Even if it was a lot of repeating information, with what new information we could to update, people were more interested in some of those mundane things where we tend to check the box on that: We’ve already told people when the electricity is coming on. We’ve already told people when they can expect cable.
“When they start asking again four and five days later, that becomes a reminder to us. We answered their question five days ago, but what’s changed? If you’re answering the questions they want answered, what we’re finding out is they keep coming back to us.”
Get officials on board early: Landeck reached out to major public information officers ahead of time, letting them know they were taking this approach to coverage. She told them reporters may ask unexpected questions, of a type that maybe wouldn’t normally be prioritized.
“They’re coming from real people, and it’s valuable information, so don’t ignore this text,” Landeck said.
The approach worked well, Landeck said, and staff were able to get the information they needed to continue answering questions.
Have a backup plan: Prepare for the worst outcome.
Cazalas said it’s important to have a backup plan for the backup plan.
“If you are going to be in the direct line of fire, or might be in the direct line of fire, have a backup plan,” Landeck said. “We were told our building was a hurricane shelter and we would be safe there. … But our building broke and lost all communication.”
Having someone outside the disaster zone is important, Dion said. Someone you trust, even if they’re from outside your organization, who can step in and keep things going. Being able to bring in a colleague to manage the Hearken project as seamlessly as possible was critical to the success of this effort in the days immediately after the storm.
“Have close contact with them and let them know as soon as possible to take the reins,” Dion said.
Control misinformation: Cazalas said the Bay Asked, We Answered series has become a trusted project in the community, and taking and answering questions through it contributed to their ability to quell misinformation.
“It was really helpful for rumors,” Landeck said. “All the rumors would pop up in the questions, like people saying the Hathaway Bridge is under water, and we’d be able to quash that. The Hathaway Bridge will never be under water unless the whole U.S. is because it’s too high.”
Trust the audience: The questions people asked helped newsroom staff understand what information people needed. They used the hurricane form to ask for the real information they couldn’t find. Without it, staff would have been only able to follow their own ideas, and not had the immediate direction and feedback in the form of audience responses.
“We would have had stuff that people didn’t need, stuff that people didn’t care about,” Dion said. “Because of this blackout, I would have had no idea what people wanted, and we would have been just putting out (stories from) press releases and going to press conferences. It wouldn’t have been helpful, wouldn’t have been a resource, and we wouldn’t have been answering questions people wanted to know. … We might have gotten to it eventually in our coverage, but it wouldn’t have been as soon, and it wouldn’t have been as direct.”