How a local public radio station covered the devastating fire in Paradise, Calif: “We wanted to be the center of information for the people who were in the middle of a mass catastrophe”

In the aftermath of the Camp Fire that devastated Paradise, Calif. last November, journalists from all over the world descended on the town to cover the fire, its impact on the residents, and the broader implications of a changing climate.

But while they were reporting the news for national and international audiences, North State Public Radio, the small local public radio station, was figuring out how it could report on the story in a way that met the needs of the nearby community.

To report on the fire and the recovery efforts, NSPR turned to volunteer journalists and began producing “After Paradise,” a daily show covering the recovery.

“We really just decided that this was a pure public service play,” said Tess Vigeland, a public radio journalist who volunteered with NSPR to create the show. “We wanted to be the center of information for the people who were in the middle of a mass catastrophe.”

Vigeland and Phil Wilke, NSPR’s general manager, each recently published essays reflecting on their coverage in Current. I read them a few weeks ago and immediately wanted to know more, so this week in Solution Set we’re going to dig into how NSPR served its community during a time of crisis.

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one worthwhile thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.

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Here’s the TLDR:


TLDR

• The Challenge: With its small newsroom, North State Public Radio needed to figure out how to meet the needs its community after the devastating Camp Fire.

• The Strategy: Relying on volunteers, NSPR produced After Paradise, a daily news show and podcast covering the recovery from the fire.

• The Numbers: The show was developed in less than 72 hours, and it aired daily for three weeks before the station decided to turn it into a weekly show.

• The Lessons: NSPR purposefully decided to create After Paradise for a local audience, which impacted how it approached covering stories for the show. It also realized it didn’t need to sound perfect — the information just needed to be accurate and helpful.

• The Future: NSPR knows After Paradise won’t run forever, but it plans to continue producing it for the time being.

• Want to know more?: Scroll down to learn more about After Paradise and NSPR’s work with volunteers from their first-person reflections published in Current.


The Challenge

It was the week before Thanksgiving when the call for volunteers went out: North State Public Radio, the NPR-affiliate based in Chico, Calif. that covers Paradise and the surrounding areas, needed help. The region had been decimated by the Camp Fire, and the station’s small staff was spread impossibly thin trying to cover all the news.

The director of the local chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists had reached out to NSPR asking if the station could use the help, and the station said yes. SPJ distributed the call over its email newsletter and social media channels. Word of the call-out spread rapidly among the community of journalists, and people from all over the country volunteered their services.

Public radio reporter Tess Vigeland was on a road trip when the request for volunteers popped up in her Facebook News Feed.

“I immediately knew that this was something I had to raise my hand for,” she told me. “I was on a road trip from Portland to Los Angeles, and I was headed home back to Portland. I had a car and a suitcase, so I think it was meant to be. I essentially told Phil let me help you guys. I arrived on Friday afternoon and these guys were as tired as anyone I had ever seen.”

Vigeland had never been to Paradise or that area of northern California before, but she worked to get to know the area and to learn from the residents. “You do your best in that situation to be as empathetic as possible,” she said.

While Vigeland and others were beginning to mobilize to help NSPR, the station was thinking of how it could best serve its community once it had more resources, Phil Wilke, NSPR’s general manager, told me.

One idea that Vigeland and the station both settled on: A daily news show covering updates on the recovery from the fire.

“Our news director Sarah Bohannon floated the idea of doing something like this once we had the resources,” Wilke said. “It was an open question if we would ever be in a position to have the resources given our staffing levels and the volume of reporting that would have to be done. So when somebody who has the public radio experience that Tess does comes and says they have ideas, you just say, ‘You know what, you know what you’re doing, I’m going to let you do it.’ We knew that the area needed this. Full stop. It just needed this because there was so much devastation, so much trauma, and so many people displaced. When we went on air 15 days after the fire started, there were still thousands of people living in Red Cross shelters and camping on grassy medians in Chico. This was the public mission aspect of what public radio is supposed to be doing.”


The Strategy

Vigeland arrived in northern California on Friday November 23. By 6:30 p.m. the following Monday, the first episode of After Paradise, a daily half-hour show was on the air.

Almost immediately, Vigeland, the NSPR staff, and other volunteers began working through the weekend to get the show ready for broadcast while still filing spot news pieces and covering the ongoing story.

“You would be hard pressed to find any broadcast organization that has done anything this quickly,” she said. “Usually it takes stations weeks, if not months, to make decisions. Part of the gift of this sort of thing is that you’re all in it at the same time in the middle of a crisis. There’s not a lot of dithering about decision making.”

In our conversation, and in the piece she wrote for Current, Vigeland outlined some of those decisions. We’ll cover some of them here and others down in The Lessons.

When it came to naming the podcast, the staff wrote a number of potential names on a whiteboard in the newsroom. NSPR staffers felt strongly that they should stay away from anything resembling “Paradise, Lost.” The team kept suggesting names, and ultimately Ken Devol, NSPR’s Weekend All Things Considered host, came up with “After Paradise,” and wrote it on the board. They quickly realized that was the best option.

In addition to the name, NSPR needed to think about how the show would actually fit into the 30 minute time slot and incorporate things such as a newscast and sponsorship messages. Wilke checked with NPR, which told him that they only needed to play the sponsorship messages at some point throughout the half hour. That gave the team flexibility to focus primarily on the actual coverage.

Vigeland also prioritized getting rights to music for the show. “You always have music at the top of the show,” she told me. She reached out to Adam Ragusea, a journalism professor and composer, asking if he had any music he could contribute. Within a couple hours, he shared a few clips — at no cost — that NSPR used throughout the show. The show also worked with a local composer in Chico, Calif.

“The audience would not have cared if we had gone on at 6:30 on Monday night the 26th without music. They wouldn’t have cared. But it did add to a sound, a legitimacy, and a validation that this was in fact something they should listen to. I’m just grateful that all those factors came together.”


The Numbers

NSPR has six full-time employees and another six part-time staffers.

“After Paradise” debuted on Nov. 26, 2018, 18 days after the Camp Fire broke out. It aired every weekday at 6:30 p.m.

Early episodes focused on covering updates from emergency responders, but also shared resources for listeners. The show spoke with the director of a therapy group that was offering survivors free sessions to help them avoid developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It also interviewed a local district attorney who shared tips for how to avoid scams as seedy actors look to take advantage of the disaster.

Vigeland stayed in the area for 22 days, and after three weeks of broadcasts, it switched to a weekly format, airing on Thursdays. “This story is not going to go away for years,” Vigeland said. “It was very hard to make that decision to go from daily to weekly, but there was just no way with the staff that it was going to be possible.”

The stories the show covers have evolved also as it moves away from the immediate response to the disaster to more long-term recovery and policy issues that will continue to impact the area. Last week, for example, the show covered the implications of California’s largest utility, PG&E seeking bankruptcy protection, examining what it will mean for fire survivors.

Vigeland was volunteering during her time at NSPR, and she’s continued to volunteer her time to support the project. In total, nearly three dozen people offered to volunteer, according to Wilke.

Anecdotally, Wilke said the show has received positive feedback from the community, but he said it was difficult to measure if it had any impact on listenership or membership numbers for a variety of reasons.

A different fire last July damaged one NSPR’s broadcast towers, its transmitter and transmitter building in addition miles of power lines and poles on a mountain. Those facilities didn’t come back on line until mid-December. So for the first month after the fire about one-third of the station’s listening area couldn’t access the station.

“As soon as we got back on air up there we did a December two-day mini on-air pledge drive and had a direct mail end of year campaign,” he said. “That went very well, but we really don’t have any historical data to measure how well we did versus the last time one-third of our audience didn’t hear us.”

He continued: “And a town of 27,000 half-an-hour to our east was just displaced. The listeners, the donors, the friends of the station who lived in Paradise and listened or commuted to Chico, we don’t know where they are now. We hope they’re listening, but they’re not in Paradise anymore. They were the third largest city in the county. There’s no apples to apples metrics on this effect on fundraising or this effect on listening because we had so many variables going at all times.”


The Lessons

• Know your audience: Perhaps the most important decision the NSPR team made early on was that After Paradise would focus solely on serving the community directly affected by the fire.

“The biggest decision we made was that this show was purely going to be for this local audience: for the fire victims and for the various communities that were surrounding Paradise,” Vigeland said. “It was not going to be for a regional audience, it was not going to be for a national audience. Because then you have to say things like, ‘Paradise, population 27,000,’ and the people of Paradise and Chico already knew that. We really just decided that this was a pure public service play. We wanted to be the center of information for the people who were in the middle of a mass catastrophe.”

That initial decision impacted every subsequent editorial decision the show made and informed how it covered the aftermath of the fire.

It also encouraged listeners to get in touch with questions or comments. The station used Hearken on its website and also broadcast and posted about a phone number that listeners could call with questions or tips.

They didn’t get a ton of calls, Vigeland said, but the ones they did get helped drive coverage. For example, residents of Magalia, the town just north of Paradise, were unable to use roads that connected them to Chico and other cities. A resident called to let the station know about it.

“They were essentially marooned in their town,” Vigeland said. “We got a call from someone up there saying, ‘We’re in trouble, and nobody is paying attention.’ We went up there and were the only media organization to report on that particular story. That came through the phone number. It does make a difference.”

If your newsroom is serving your community in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, you should work to make yourself as accessible as possible to people.

In fact, one of the lessons Wilke said he learned from the experience was that he wish he limited the number of interviews his staffers conducted with out-of-market outlets. “The 30 minutes that they were are on a two-way with that out-of-market station was 30 minutes they weren’t reporting for our listeners. We had a lot of interview requests,” he wrote in Current.

• Don’t worry about perfection: Because it developed the show over the course of a weekend, NSPR knew that After Paradise wasn’t going to sound perfect. And that’s okay. Its priority was producing accurate, impactful journalism that helped the community.

“We were very fortunate that we were able to find a way to provide this for the community,” Vigeland said. “I kept going back to that. Whatever is happening here that is not useful for the people of this town, we are not going to cover. We are not going to worry about if it’s the best sounding piece that someone ever heard. We don’t have time for that. This is a crisis situation. We’re going to get information on the air as quickly as we can and with 100 percent accuracy. That’s what we set out for ourselves.”

Journalists, understandably, expect perfection. But in cases like this it’s best to produce a minimally viable product and just get it out there so the information can help the community.

• Don’t be afraid to ask for help: NSPR could not have covered the Camp Fire and its aftermath without the help of volunteers and other stations, particularly Sacramento’s Capital Public Radio and KQED from San Francisco.

KQED and Capital Public Radio have continued to help NSPR edit and produce After Paradise.

“For instance, if a reporter went out and got a 20-minute two-way [interview], then we would just ask this volunteer producer who was based at KQED to cut this down to a usable size,” Wilke said. “We’d send it off and it would come back later that day at five minutes. We could not have gotten that on air without that. We were able to find an audio engineer here in town who was able to mix and master the show for us. That was one of the few skills Tess said she didn’t have, so we were able to contract that out.”

Wilke said he was grateful SPJ put out the call for volunteers, and he said he wished he had thought to ask for help earlier.

Obviously, volunteer staffers aren’t a long-term solution to build a sustainable newsroom, but in an emergency, journalists have proved time-and-again that they’re willing to lend a hand. Newsrooms in need should not be afraid to ask for help.

And while NSPR received calls and offers of help from all over the country, one offer in particular stood out to Wilke.

“When we asked for help from other media outlets, in terms of coverage, editing, producing, or mixing they were right there to help us out,” he said. “We even heard from The Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. [After the shooting,] people had come to help them put out the newspaper. They called us and asked what can we do? That level of professional support from your colleagues across media, I cannot stress how helpful and supportive that is. So the next time a call goes out, I’m going to answer regardless of the situation I find myself in. It really is a pay it forward situation.”


The Future

For now, NSPR has no plans to end After Paradise, but Wilke acknowledged that it won’t continue airing the show forever.

“We haven’t put an end date on it,” he said. “Whenever that rolls around it will be a function of station resources and community need.”

The format of the show, however, will likely evolve. It might not have as many stories reported from the field, and instead could focus on segments that are easier to produce such as interviews with community leaders or financial planners who are experts in insurance issues.

“We feel confident that we can do that level of production in-house for the next couple of months. And if someone comes up here and says, ‘I want to volunteer, what can I do for the next five days?’ we’ll put them to work.’”


Want to know more?

• Here’s Wilke in Current on how the station worked with volunteers.

• In her Current piece, Vigeland describes in great detail what it took to get After Paradise on the air.

• Poynter’s David Beard wrote about how California newsrooms covered the fire.

• Last year, I wrote about how another newsroom, Pittsburgh’s WESA, responded to another tragedy, the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue.


Anything to add?

Has your newsroom rushed out any products to serve your community during a crisis? How have you reported on an emergency situation.

Let me know. I’ll share the responses in a future issue.

See you next Thursday!


Creative commons photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Taylor Workman: “Eric Gowins marvels at the sight of his still-standing fireplace within his decimated home in Paradise, California, Dec. 17, 2018.”