Here’s how the Charleston Daily Mail went above and beyond for water crisis

This is the first in a Behind the DFMie series of posts on January’s DFMie winners

The Charleston Daily Mail‘s coverage of West Virginia’s water crisis included such extraordinary steps as distributing cases of drinking water in the community and collaborating with a documentary filmmaker.

The Daily Mail’s coverage won the January DFMie for the Pennsylvania/New Jersey/West Virginia cluster.

Editor Brad McElhinny detailed the coverage in his nomination (edited lightly):

On Jan. 9, residents of Charleston started reporting an unusual smell in the air. Some compared it to licorice, others to Robitussin.

By that evening, it was clear the situation was much more serious. The chemical, which was being stored in tanks along the Elk River, had entered the intake valve at West Virginia American Water and contaminated the water supply for 300,000 people across nine counties.

The Daily Mail staff immediately started a liveblog using CoverItLive to give residents immediate updates. The liveblog ran for a week as residents were urged to not consume their water, not to bathe and not to use it for everyday activities such as washing dishes or laundry. The live blog got 44,831 views.

Growth in our online readership demonstrated how vital our coverage was to our community: That first week of coverage, Google Analytics showed 220,000 visits to our website vs. 130,000 the prior week, 133,000 unique visitors vs. 80,000 the prior week. On Facebook, there were 554 new page likes, total reach was up 144 percent, and there were 33,000 people engaged.

One more important number wasn’t a web stat: The Daily Mail staff, along with the Charleston Newspapers circulation department and Trane Heating and Cooling, distributed 900 cases of water, a day after the crisis hit, to community members who had none.

We also used our blogs, Twitter and Facebook to let people know other places they could find bottled water being distribute

Other highlights of our early coverage included two explanatory videos about how the crisis happened. The first, above, by Elaine McMillion and Dave Boucher, got 1,281 views in our NDN player and 4,208 on YouTube. A second, below, by McMillion and Marcus Constantino got 582 views in NDN and 357 on YouTube.

Since that first day, in a water crisis that has lasted more than a month, the Daily Mail staff has written more than 100 accounts of the crisis — which has taken a few more turns, including a lack of knowledge about the effects of the chemical, several revisions about the amount of chemical that actually leaked, a late warning for pregnant women not to use the water even after the initial ban was lifted, the later revelation that yet another chemical leaked and the ongoing odor that remains in people’s water lines.

Charleston Daily Mail front page Jan. 15, 2004Eventually the story became distrust — distrust in the water, distrust in the water company, distrust in the regulators, distrust in the public officials providing information.

By Jan. 15, the Daily Mail was asking residents how long it would be until they would willingly drink their tap water again — a question accompanied by an iconic front page (right) and a story and video by Marcus Constantino.

On Jan. 22, when a little more time had passed and the situation was bordering on ridiculous, the Daily Mail staff sampled bottled water to pass recommendations with a lighter touch to a community that was now committed to the bottled version for the long haul. People seemed to appreciate the Life page levity.

Assisting the Daily Mail in the coverage was documentary filmmaker Elaine McMillion, whose video a judge described as a “show-stealer … This video is not just informative — it’s striking.”

McElhinny said McMillion is a two-time Daily Mail intern who “called Daily Mail editors with an offer to work together on this story. In the spirit of DFM’s cooperative efforts, we worked with her on this one. She used our newsroom as home base and worked with Dave as reporter, storyteller and navigator and then with Marcus as a reporter and co-videographer. Elaine is terrific.”

McMillion provided this account of her contribution:

I am still blown away by the response to the video. It seemed to help break important content down for people in a way that was shareable.

As I was sitting in Morgantown, West Virginia watching tweets, headlines and snippets of online video roll in from the water crisis I felt disoriented and overwhelmed. From a visual (particularly video) perspective, the event was being covered in a spotty way in the digital world. I could not find a piece that put me in the place of this event and helped me understand the magnitude. Words, numbers and photos were powerful and drew me to the story but my goal, working with the talented Daily Mail reporters, was to help encapsulate the past few days into a succinct package that would not only help people from Morgantown, W.Va. understand and visualize this disaster, but would draw the attention of our nation.

After being out of the newsroom since 2010, this video was an interesting snap back into the reality of hard deadlines. I began shooting the piece at 1 p.m. and found myself uploading it at 3 the next morning. Gawker.com picked up the story and soon we had well over 4,000 hits from people all over the U.S. The Daily Mail’s YouTube channel brought in nearly 5,000 hits, while my Vimeo channel has 8,000 hits and growing.

The video was spread on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and was used by citizens to visually show the nation what they had been experiencing over the past 36 hours. It was a rewarding process to work with Dave, the talented narrator and reporter, who put in so many hours to dig to the bottom and get the much-needed details. As a journalist-turned-documentary filmmaker, this video was a great reminder of how important it is to be comprehensive and think visually in such chaotic and fragmented time in breaking news history.

Reporter Marcus Constantino adds this advice for other journalists covering such a story:

The water crisis has been a constantly evolving situation and has been a great opportunity for us to shine on social media. Taking a few minutes away from writing to tweet an interesting quote or number engaged our readers and got the important information to them quicker.

Teamwork has also been essential to our coverage. Sharing contacts, quotes and ideas, and asking for help when needed, is a practice I hope we can keep going well after our water woes are over.

Other judges’ comments:

The Charleston Daily Mail staff put together a comprehensive and engaging coverage of the West Virginia water contamination crisis. This was journalism at its finest, getting in front of the story and keeping the public informed. Their use of social media was also a perfect example of today’s journalism without sacrificing the foundation and basis of newspaper reporting that people come to expect from us. …

I personally liked the humanitarian element of passing out water bottles and assuaging community fears during a tumultuous time. …

The Charleston Daily Mail deftly managed the Elk River contamination, providing all-angles coverage without diluting content. … a hot shower well-earned by all. …

The live blog was timely and provided an immediate forum for compelling and relevant information that the community needed to know and engaged in. The explanatory videos were well made and good supplements to the written stories. They took extra steps in community service with their bottled water distribution and their lighter bottled water review. …

The people certainly lost faith in the water company and their government, but they certainly gained trust in their local newspaper. Kudos.

Other January DFMie winners will be detailed in Inside Thunderdome posts next week.

Steve Buttry

By Steve Buttry

Steve Buttry is Digital Transformation Editor for Digital First Media. He oversees our efforts to transform newsroom operations and culture to more effectively pursue our digital goals. His duties include responsibility for social media and community engagement. He has visited most DFM newsrooms personally, leading workshops and coaching editors and other journalists in following the Digital First approach.

Leave a Reply