Community Coverage of the Gap Fire

A Glimpse of the Brave New World of News and Media

For Debbie Kleinpeter’s family, the biggest challenge in evacuating their home wasn’t packing up treasured photos and insurance papers, or pulling out of the driveway, not knowing when they’d be back.

“The most frustrating thing,” she recalled, “was trying to get up-to-date information.”

Like tens of thousands of South Coast residents caught up in the Gap Fire’s fast-moving chaos, UCSB employee Kleinpeter anxiously and constantly searched for solid information that was immediate, reliable, and comprehensive. Rather than finding a single such source, people instead sifted through government, news, and community outlets reporting about the fire, sometimes with conflicting information.

The ways and means by which Gap Fire news was transmitted and spread represent a case study of how real people used a digital age information market to make real-time, real-life decisions in a crisis. In one way, the Gap Fire highlighted a failure by authorities to fully heed past lessons about communicating with the public; in another, it revealed the outline of a transformed media landscape, shaped by the Internet, engaged citizen journalists, and an increasingly wide range of information alternatives.

“There was information to be had, but you really had to go look for it,” said Barbara MacLean, production manager for UCSB’s Daily Nexus, who evacuated her home near Winchester Canyon. “You had to bounce all over.”

Lacking a singular, authoritative source, South Coast residents became news hunter-gatherers, a role reflecting a fundamental shift in how people nationally now use media, at a time when the industry is undergoing revolutionary change. As the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), a prominent, Washington, D.C.-based media watchdog recently reported, “Audiences are moving toward information on demand, to media platforms and outlets that can tell them what they want to know, when they want to know it.”

During the fire, three key aspects of this shift were notable:

• News is becoming a service, not a product. “There is no single or finished news product anymore,” the PEJ noted. “As news consumption becomes continual, more new effort is put into producing incremental updates.” During the fire, for example, this newspaper’s Web site, independent.com, showed how dramatically news organizations have refocused their resources: during 108 hours between Thursday night, when the fire erupted, and Monday morning, when most evacuees were home, the weekly newspaper’s Web site produced 51 stories and updates-one nearly every 30 minutes-in addition to maps, photos, and other material. During that time, the site’s traffic quintupled, according to publisher Randy Campbell.

• Citizens are now providers of news, not just passive recipients. At edhat.com, for example, hundreds of readers posted comments providing up-to-date information from their perspectives and vantage points, continually updating each other about fire conditions, most notably Thursday night. “Our subscribers told a story that wasn’t being told in the media or by the official sites,” said Peter Sklar, who runs Edhat.

• News organizations offer multiple pathways to more information. Abandoning the industry’s traditional obsession with exclusivity, news sites now serve an important function as “gateways to other places, and a means to drill deeper,” the PEJ noted. The community news site noozhawk.com, for example, offers dozens of links to related sites embedded in its often updated original reporting. “A print product can’t keep up with a fluid news event like a wildfire,” said publisher Bill Macfadyen.

Beyond media issues, the Gap Fire also raises questions about how the regional governments communicated with the public in the emergency. After the deadly La Conchita landslide, the county’s civil grand jury reported that “the public was uninformed and confused due to the lack of timely and accurate information about evacuations and highway closures.” The report recommended changes.

Supervisor Janet Wolf, among those forced out of her home by the fire, said that emergency operations and communications have improved somewhat since then, but still are not sufficient. As advances, she pointed to the Reverse 911 call system and the county’s emergency incident call center. However, she added, the county still needs a permanent emergency operations center to replace the current trailer-housed facility, where phones and computers must be set up for each incident. Wolf also said the county should contract with one 24-hour radio station as a dedicated emergency information source, a key recommendation of the grand jury report.

“The information was not as quick and forthcoming as the community wanted and needed,” Wolf explained. “We’re losing time at the start, which is the most critical time.”

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