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A beautiful photo of a terrible fire

Credit: Kate NG Sommers
Credit: Kate NG Sommers

No one died, but a lot of folks lost their jobs and dreams in Thursday’s fire at 50th & Bryant in southwest Minneapolis. I’m sure the blaze was covered more lavishly because it occurred in the heart of monied Minneapolis, and so many media folks live near there, dined at Blackbird and Heidi’s, and shopped at Patina and Shoppe Local.

Still, that preoccupation paid off with a couple of impressive developments on the digital media scene.

One came courtesy of WCCO reporter (and noted foodie) Jason DeRusha, who cleverly combined his blog, his usually goofy JasonCam, and a chat function to “cover” the fire. DeRusha blended WCCO’s copter video and the station’s reporting with the comments of concerned neighbors and diners. DeRusha initially recognized the interest via social media such as Twitter, then publicized his effort via those channels, instantly creating a real community node, and a real community service.

While this was an especially powerful example, DeRusha leveraging new reporting techniques and social media is dog-bites-man at this point. Less predictable was the all-out effort by Heavy Table, Jim Norton’s one-year-old dining site, which scrambled contributor Kate NG Sommers to the scene and blogged the disaster all day.

Sommers produced a very nice photo gallery of the awfulness, including this stunning black-and-white image (reprinted above, with permission) that will rip the heart out of all of us who know the intersection well. Great work, people, and a great way to show how well a specialty site can pull off breaking news.

Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by John Reinan on 02/19/2010 - 10:30 am.

    The coverage, both in the Strib and here, seems to have a doom-and-gloom attitude.

    “Lost their dreams”?

    This is terrible, of course, but don’t these businesses have insurance? Can’t they rebuild?

    The tone I’m picking up is, “It’s all over.”

  2. Submitted by Adam Platt on 02/19/2010 - 11:17 am.

    I got a phone call and an email about the fire yesterday afternoon, one prompted by Twitter, the other by a drive-by. I was on deadline with a story I was writing. Like most the Twin Cities at 2 p.m. I was working. I could have posted something on our website about the fire, or added to the Tweeting, but it struck me as something that no value could be brought to beyond the basic information, which was running rampant already.

    So I did not stop my day to follow the live accounts of the fire, or drive out there “to help” as someone, in that that earnest south Minneapolis way, puzzlingly suggested. And neither could most people.

    It’s great that people are willing to take the time to Tweet and live-blog random tragedies, but in the end it did not enhance my understanding of the cause or the impact of the event any more than the wrap-up in today’s paper. It’s a form of narrowcasting to the super-interested with little else to do.

    I wonder as more and more of us devote effort to immediacy journalism (much of it is not journalism) what kind of resources remain for fact-gathering and analysis, the real core of what journalists do.

  3. Submitted by Steve Sundberg on 02/19/2010 - 11:24 am.

    @John: Insurance will cover the physical costs of reconstruction but won’t cover the wages of those who will surely be losing their jobs. If a fire were to occur at your workplace, would you be financially-secure enough to wait out reconstruction, unemployed, until you could return to your old workplace?

  4. Submitted by Jason DeRusha on 02/19/2010 - 11:35 am.

    I think it’s been a little overwrought, probably because a lot of media people have visited these places and live in that neighborhood.

    I thought the Strib headline was pretty silly, because no one lost their dreams. Those dreams live on, I suspect.

    They lost their building. The real issue is that all of those employees are immediately out of work. Insurance doesn’t cover that.

  5. Submitted by Jason DeRusha on 02/19/2010 - 11:40 am.

    Adam: you say you didn’t read or watch any of the live coverage, but you confidently assert that it didn’t enhance your understanding. Huh?

    At any rate, in my case, there was zero cost to my livecasting. I was working on an unrelated story that still aired last night at ten. I simply delayed my main work for about 90 minutes while I routed our already existing chopper live feed through my existing Jasoncam feed.

    There’s not necessarily a cost to some of these things, it’s a matter of being quick and being creative with the technology that’s available.

    I don’t think all news coverage has to enhance a wider understanding. It was just a fire, after all. Some news coverage tells you what’s happening. Today, we can do a better job of creating a place where people can ask questions, share thoughts, and add input to the coverage as it happens.

    Incidentally, my Good Question on how libraries pick what books to shelve still aired last night, and was quite nice, I think!

  6. Submitted by Adam Platt on 02/19/2010 - 12:10 pm.

    Jason,

    I read the live blogging on Heavy Table this morning, so I do know what was conveyed. The building was on fire. It was burning. It might be destroyed. No one knew anything else. I spent my afternoon writing a story thousands of people will read, rather than dropping everything to watch or read live-blogging of a fire. It was the best use of my time, and frankly, the only proper use of that time.

    I’m not criticizing anyone for doing it or consuming it. I don’t dispute that there wasn’t a cost to WCCO’s newsgathering yesterday. I just question the utility of a lot of this and question the impactfulness of it outside the circle of heavy users who are unquestioning about it.

  7. Submitted by Barbara Miller on 02/19/2010 - 12:17 pm.

    Yesterday, a friend and I visited the Russian Art Museum on Diamond Lake Road. I suggested we have lunch at the Malt Shop, since he’d never eaten there. Imagine my astonishment as I approached Lyndale Avenue from the east only to discover 50th Street blocked off and filled with squads, firetrucks, firefighters, equipment and the gnarly business of getting an out-of-control fire under control. Lots of smoke. Spiky flames. Uffdah.

    I grew up in that ‘hood. It’s a nostalgic place that I passed on days when I walked home from school. And it gained a new dimension in 1973 (I think) when the Malt Shop appeared.

    It’s really irrelevant, I think, whether it’s a tony or once-tony neighborhood, or whether journalists abound in the area. The building itself had some historic significance. Did you never note the stamped tin ceiling in the Malt Shop? The age of the buildings in that area on their cornerstones or over their entryways?

    It is a loss to the community. It is a loss to employees, and even to insured owners. Dreams need not be exclusively focused on the long-term. I assume those who owned and worked at those businesses dreamed they would have a place to earn a living today. This weekend. Next week.

    I assume the owner of Heidi’s was flying high on the immediate dream of recognition and celebration of what it had to offer today. This weekend.

    Is it an epic tragedy? Hard for those of us not affected to weigh in on that, isn’t it?! But it is news. And it is also a human interest story. Remember when we gave a rip about those things?

    I’m glad MinnPost still does.

  8. Submitted by Jason DeRusha on 02/19/2010 - 03:17 pm.

    Adam, I’m glad you spent your afternoon writing your piece, and I’m glad that I work at a place where plenty of journalists kept about their business and covering important stories. Including the one who ran the live coverage.

    Journalists have always covered fires and murders and car crashes. We’re not losing something by covering these things today. The fact that we can do it live online and engage the community at the same time (even if it’s a circle of unquestioning heavy users) seems like a positive to me.

    I disagree with your original assertion, questioning “what kind of resources [will] remain for fact-gathering and analysis, the real core of what journalists do.”

    Journalists will learn to do fact-gathering, analysis, and real-time interaction with a small circle of heavy users. And those who don’t care for it, get to make that choice as well.

  9. Submitted by Ken Paulman on 02/19/2010 - 03:55 pm.

    Not to discount the tragedy here, but I do think there’s some room to think about what happens when the “news is what happens to editors” and the digital-immediacy phenomena collide.

    A strikingly similar fire occurred at 21st and Chicago last summer (http://www.startribune.com/local/49507672.html?elr=KArksUUUoDEy3LGDiO7aiU). Six businesses, including a restaurant, were gutted. Dreams may or may not have been lost. And the story is only six paragraphs long – no eyewitness interviews, no video, no live-blogging.

    Why such a dramatic difference in coverage?

  10. Submitted by Boa Lee on 02/19/2010 - 04:49 pm.

    Isn’t is just so sad that ANYONE even mentioned that the story might have been “overblown” because so many “media people” live in the area? I certainly hope that that is not how a newsroom picks its stories (and I don’t think it is).

    In any case, it is a loss to the owners, patrons and employees because these were small businesses built and sustained with the love, sweat and tears that we all appreciate about local businesses.

  11. Submitted by Hal Sanders on 02/19/2010 - 06:17 pm.

    Would someone please tell me (citing sources) how he/she knows that “so many media people” live in that area? The same case could be made for many areas in the TC metro area with which I am familiar. In this case, the media were dealing with the destruction of restaurants and other businesses that drew a lot of customers from other areas, including the ‘burbs. It is not a case of “I live there, therefore it’s news.”

  12. Submitted by Jason DeRusha on 02/19/2010 - 08:42 pm.

    Hal, as a reporter for WCCO-TV, I was remarking on the make-up of our staff. It’s very South Minneapolis heavy. I was speculating not on the news value of this (I firmly believe it is news) but on some of the over-the-top portrayals of it as perhaps a greater tragedy than it really is.

    If this happened on West 7th Street in St. Paul, would it get the same treatment? I don’t know… but I wonder.

  13. Submitted by Jason DeRusha on 02/19/2010 - 08:45 pm.

    The real reason this got a lot of liveblogging coverage is because of timing.

    The story happened at 2pm. The stations were able to get helicopters up and we had a live feed to pump online. The fire at 21st & Chicago was at 8am, there isn’t as much staff in the newsroom, nor is there as large of an online audience.

  14. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 02/20/2010 - 04:20 pm.

    AFLAC!
    \had to…

    Maybe one of the journalists on here could add some value and follow up on fires such as the one on Chicago or that one on Central in Northeast a few years ago… Do the same places come back? Do the people move on or rebuild? Good question!

  15. Submitted by Ken Paulman on 02/20/2010 - 06:09 pm.

    So if the 50th and Bryant fire had happened at 8 a.m., WCCO would have just posted a brief on the site and called it a day?

  16. Submitted by Kate NG Sommers on 02/21/2010 - 10:08 am.

    I am fortunate enough that my day job gives me a decent amount of autonomy which allowed me to head over to S. Minneapolis mid-day after the Heavy Table contacted me about the fire.

    While maybe not of such importance that thousands of people would be reading my coverage, which, after two hours of observation remained the same: slow burning, destructive and stubborn fire, it certainly seems to have been of importance to the Lynnhurst and food communities in the Twin Cities. The coverage also was important for me personally as I am close with the businesses involved.

  17. Submitted by Kate NG Sommers on 02/21/2010 - 10:13 am.

    Matt, a well loved institution in Houston, TX burned to the ground during the hurricane last year. Brennans re-opened in its original “historic” location on Monday of last week. While there is much to be done and many questions to be answered before these businesses return, but there seems to be an outcry of support for all involved.

  18. Submitted by Jason DeRusha on 02/21/2010 - 06:25 pm.

    Ken, our on-air coverage of that fire that happened at 8 a.m. was comparable to the fire that happened at 2 p.m. We didn’t even lead our 10pm news with the 50th & Bryant fire. The online coverage was different.

    Not a huge deal as far as the wider audience is concerned, as far as I can tell.

    Timing is always a major factor in news coverage. New is a key component of news, and if something happened at 8am, there’s a bigger chance that people will already know about it by 10pm.

  19. Submitted by Karl Pearson-Cater on 02/21/2010 - 06:56 pm.

    The Maxwell’s Fire on Washington Ave in Minneapolis got a lot of press, too. But it had some incredible visuals:

    Maxwell’s Fire [Feb ’08] – a set on Flickr.com by Tony Webster:

    http://bit.ly/b0yM1T

  20. Submitted by Ken Paulman on 02/21/2010 - 09:08 pm.

    Jason – the online coverage is what I’m talking about. The 50th and Bryant fire was a wall-to-wall extravaganza online, the 21st and Chicago fire was treated like pretty much any run-of-the-mill structure fire.

    Now – if the “traditional” coverage (TV, radio, print) was comparable for both fires (I honestly don’t know), then that *really* gives us something to think about when it comes to how we make coverage decisions for the web. Don’t you think?

  21. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 02/22/2010 - 09:36 am.

    A very sad event for all involved in those businesses, and I certainly feel for their loss. I hope they’ll rebuild; I don’t know enough about this type of insurance to know whether workers will get any sort of funds as they scrounge for jobs in the interim.

    One thing I will say- why do local TV stations feel the urge to have helicopters? I was watching at least 2 of them trade positions over the smoke, and I really wondered how their (duplicate) footage added anything to the story. It was a bad fire, the smoke could be seen from miles away; did we need 2 (or even any) aerial views to bring that point home? It made me wonder how many times there is a story that actually NEEDS a helicopter to cover it- I suspect that occasion is rather rare.

  22. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 02/22/2010 - 04:08 pm.

    Do the stations actually have their own helecopters, a pilot, etc? Or do they have some sort of contract agreement with a local charter service? Seems like a huge expense for how rarely they use them.

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