Posted At: May 19, 2011 1:06 PM
by Wesley Vaughn
On April 27, tornadoes ripped through the state of Alabama. In Tuscaloosa alone, 43* were killed with six of those being University of Alabama students. The storm dramatically altered what local media outlets would cover the next day and the following weeks. Some outlets decided to rebrand entirely in order to focus solely on the disaster.
The Crimson White was one of those outlets. As the student newspaper for The University of Alabama, the free paper normally reports on matters only pertaining to students. The tornado that devastated parts of Tuscaloosa changed its focus and strategy, even though its staff did not foresee it soon after the storm passed.
“We knew it would be front-page news, but we had no clue how much damage it did originally,” Editor-in-Chief Victor Luckerson said. “Our office lost power, and we were working off of our phones the first night. It was only until the next day we realized what had happened.”
The Crimson White is normally printed four days a week at The Tuscaloosa News’ headquarters, the other major daily newspaper in the city, but due to power outages and a lack of resources, the CW did not go to press until May 4.
Until that time, the staff utilized their paper’s online presence to continually report on the tornado’s damage and subsequent relief efforts.
The CW’s website was overhauled to accommodate this online focus. Under the paper’s masthead, the phrase, “providing disaster updates,” was added.
“The storm changed everything,” Luckerson said. “No longer were we just a student newspaper. We soon became a resource for the Tuscaloosa community and beyond.”
Along with the six UA students who died, three students from nearby colleges were killed by the tornado as well, two from Shelton State Community College and one from Stillman College.
Former Assistant News Editor Hannah Mask took the lead on reporting the deaths and writing several of the obituaries.
“To simply ignore the tragedies beyond our campus would have been easy, but wrong,” Mask said. “We felt that we had the resources to cover them as well as the responsibility as journalists.”
The CW also created a section on its website devoted to the “affected communities” (https://cw.ua.edu/category/tornado-2/affected-communities/) within Tuscaloosa. Areas such as Holt, Alberta and Rosedale were all reported on in articles and multimedia coverage.
An interactive map and timeline as well as updated volunteer information were hosted on the website.
“With the amount of hours we worked and how we worked, we were soon looked at as one of the major sources of news about the storm,” Luckerson said.
One week after the tornado touched down in Tuscaloosa, the CW had published 139 pieces of content on its website. This total included news articles, multimedia content and student perspectives.
“Our website could barely handle the traffic in the first few days,” Luckerson said. “The amount of hits we received were unbelievable, and that really kept us going. We knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime event that we had to be on top of.”
“Usually, we try to tweet no more than 10 times a day,” Community Manager Marion Steinberg said. “We try to stir discussion while also driving followers to the website. That all changed quickly.”
The community engagement team worked to quickly relay the news to its followers as it unfolded the night the tornado hit. Over the next few days, the paper’s social media accounts took roles it never had before.
“The day after the storm, we became a clearinghouse for volunteer information,” Steinberg said. “We took in information and dispensed it out. Very soon, we established ourselves as a must-follow for interested students and residents.”
The CW tweeted and posted on Facebook at an extraordinary rate, and the response was just as extraordinary. Since April 27, the paper has gained more than 4,000 followers on Twitter and about 1,000 fans on Facebook. High-profile users started to recognize its Twitter account.
“Over the course of the first week, we were mentioned by Katie Couric, Joe Scarborough, the Weather Channel and [the Federal Emergency Management Agency],” Steinberg said.
The speed of social media also allowed the CW to discredit rumors, help account for missing students and faculty and direct volunteer efforts and donations.
“All year we had built up our social media presence,” Steinberg said. “When the time came, it was all worth it and we were ready.”
On May 4, the CW printed an eight-page, all-color, ad-free paper dedicated to coverage of the tornado. The paper is only delivered to on-campus locations, so a few staff members decided to deliver it around the community.
“When we handed our paper to the people affected by the storm, our hard work paid off,” Steinberg said. “Most of those in Tuscaloosa will never visit our website or follow us on Facebook and Twitter, but that paper acted as newspaper and will hopefully act as a keepsake.”
In times of disasters and crises, organizations in all fields have an opportunity to rebrand themselves to offer a service they cannot normally provide and are not sought out to provide. The Crimson White decided to do just that, and it resulted in the paper broadening its role in the community.
*The Tuscaloosa County tornado death toll rose to 43 on June 1, 2011.