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Christchurch earthquake web news highlights

March 6, 2011

The Christchurch quake could easily be the biggest natural disaster the country will face this century, and for the most part, NZ’s online media did a really good job of covering it.

That’s particularly true for the NZ Herald and Stuff.co.nz websites (disclosure: I work for Stuff and did some of its earthquake work). The tragedy showed the power of the big news websites to inform the public about what was going on, beyond soundbites and horrible yet gripping images.

It also showed that when it comes to online news, while New Zealand news orgs may lack the scale of The New York Times or The Guardian, we’re not far off the bleeding edge of journalism. I’d say that’s especially true for Stuff, even if I didn’t work for them.

The earthquake was covered in depth by Stuff, NZHerald, TVNZ, 3News, and RadioNZ. I’d invite you to check out YahooXtra’s and Msn.co.nz’s coverage as well, bu they don’t have separate sections for quake news, nor do they generate much of their own quake copy.

Have a look at those sites and compare the effort dedicated to earthquake information. This probably had an effect on their traffic in the past two weeks.

For this post I’ll deal mainly with Stuff and the NZHerald, because they’re the biggest sites, produce the most original quake content and did the most neat things.

So how did the media respond to the quake?

1. We reached out

The quake changed the way the nzherald.co.nz and stuff.co.nz sites pulled in outside content. We’ve both been experimenting with pulling social media and other topical web content into our own stories (with Stuff leading the way, I have to say, but again back to that disclaimer – my job is to get these kind of neat things on to the Stuff site).

Early on, both sites used Storify to create a moderated feed of Facebook comments, tweets, YouTube clips and news from other sites as well as their own (click here to see an example). But moderating takes time, and quite a lot of time if you want to do a good job. So after three days both sites dropped Storify in favour of automated Twitter feeds.

Both sites embedded Twitter widgets into their homepages and other section landing pages. The NZHerald went a bit further, embedding theirs into their top story slot, but I believe Stuff was doing it first (Wednesday Feb 23, lunchtime-ish) with a simple Twitter embed on #eqnz  and another of official quake info from the government (I was pretty busy that day, so might have missed the Herald’s, but I doubt it). The TV3 and TVNZ sites followed with their own #eqnz Twitter widgets. Expect a lot more Twitter widgets on NZ news sites from now on. They’re easy to make and have lots of different uses.

Usually major news site are a bit wary about allowing outside content in unmoderated (for legal and sweary reasons), but for the quake things happened so quickly a news org didn’t have much choice if it wanted to help its readers stay informed.

Stuff and other sites also directed people to Google’s person finder – where you can hunt for info on loved ones or post info on people you know are ok – and Trade Me’s (Fairfax-owned like Stuff.co.nz, but we operate independently) nice tool to find or offer accommodation, support for pets and lots of other things. The folks at Trade Me did a great job to get this up about 24 hours after the quake struck. Its 6700 listings have had about a million views, by about 250,000 people (thanks to Mod at Trade Me for the lovely numbers). That’s stupendous and I’m sure it’s been a great help to the people living in Christchurch.

2. We worked together

You’ve probably seen the excellent Ushahidi-based crowdsourced map, which lets people in Christchurch report on dangers and working services in their area. This was put together by a global group of techie volunteers in response to the quake and is a great way to quickly find out what’s going on in your area. They did a fabulous job under tight deadlines and tough conditions.

Earlier versions used CrowdMap, a free web-hosted version of Ushahidi (which is open source and usually downloaded and hosted on your own servers).  You may not have seen Stuff’s own CrowdMap of the quake, which went live about 20 minutes after it struck. And lots of others sprang up by later that afternoon.

This led to problems. Stuff and everyone we talked to wanted one crowdsourced map, but everyone wanted that map to be their own. Having the biggest NZ news site and the first live Crowdmap of the quake, we naturally thought it should be ours.

But Stuff decided to drop its own Crowdmap and point to the one being organised by the group of techie volunteers instead. It wasn’t my decision, but I think there were two reasons for that:

1. The altruistic one: We knew that having one place to report and find info would lead to the best quality info for people in Christchurch, and the longer it took to agree the less useful the tool would be for people who really needed good info quickly.

2. The practical one: Handling a crowdsourced map also takes a lot of technical and web editing manpower, and Stuff wanted to devote as many people as it could to our core business: creating good news content.

That’s interesting, because I suspect a year ago that wouldn’t have happened. I can’t say for sure, but I think Stuff would probably have forged ahead with its own map to retain legal and editorial oversight. But the magnitude of the disaster and the changing mood of online media in 2011 meant we took a different approach.

And there’s something else – Stuff trusted the organisers would do a good job. We have much stronger ties now into NZ’s software community than we did a year ago. It’s not that they wouldn’t have done a good job a year ago – I’m sure they would have – but when you know people personally it’s much easier to make that leap of faith.

This map worked side by side with the official information map. This was well done but I thought a bit too much data. I had rouble finding the info I was after, and it crashed my browser more than once.

Radio NZ also let Stuff and other news websites use quake-related audio clips on their site, which was a nice gesture.

* One final point on all this – Stuff (and probably other news sites) had the opportunity on quake day to build tools like Google’s Person Finder and TradeMe’s help site itself, but chose not to. At Stuff we certainly thought of all these tools and more, like lots of other tech companies did. But again, we knew other people in NZ’s software community were working on similar tools. So it was better for Christchurch – and probably Stuff as well – if we chose to work with the community rather than build parallel versions.

3. We had good multimedia

There were lots of great photos and videos from the quake, and the web put these together in new and interesting ways.

* Before and after – Some sites did before/after photo crops but I like Stuff’s javascript version, which lets you slide to change the image. I helped get the images for it (the code was cut by Stuff’s web developer Lewis Barron) and while it was many hours of frustration looking for the best angle on the “before” shots , we’ve had a lot of compliments about it and I’m really pleased with how it turned out.

* Photo/video map – I built this map for Stuff using Google Maps, which shows photos and videos from Fairfax employees that I could pin to a location. It’s a good way of showing how the quake devastated the central city.

* Homepage Flash embed – Both Stuff and the NZHerald site are doing this, with Stuff concentrating on info for quake victims, while the Herald are using theirs to show photos and names of the dead. Both are well done.

* Flash map of condolences from around the world – The NZHerald was a bit late launching this a week after the quake, but its map of condolences from around the world was nicely done.

(Another great map showing recent Christchurch quakes is here.)

What did you think of the quake coverage? Did anything catch your eye?

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