More than Technology & Less than a Wildfire

Several days ago, I received a voice mail from a newspaper reporter who wanted to talk about social networking.  I was working a conference at the time, and with sessions, meetings, and evening banquets, I was not able to return his call until I reached the airport, two days later.  His name was Gary Warth, and he was a reporter for the North County Times, serving San Diego. 

Canyon Country Fire 10-21-07Something was happening with the paper’s web site.  On Sunday, they’d hosted 175,235 visits.  But the next day, it climbed to 878,351 and on Tuesday it peeked at 1,054,354.  Of course the San Diego wildfires explained the interest (3.2 million visits for the week) and the increased commenting (19,010).  But what struck the staff of the newspaper was the dramatic shift in tone.  They were accustomed to comments and sudden spikes in their volume.  But these online conversations were typically “contentious as readers bicker about politics, immigration and other divisive issues.

As Warth reported in Online community comes to the fore during fires (27 Oct 2007)…

Readers asked one another for information about their towns or even their specific streets, and other readers directed them to maps or shared whatever they knew.

“Does anyone know how Green Canyon is doing?” wrote reader High Hopes.

Thirty minutes later, High Hopes had an answer from reader MKE: “Green Canyon from Reche to Winterhaven was OK. I think south to Mission is OK. Was at The VFW last night very smoky. No sizable winds at present along Green Canyon.”

A different kind of news service seems to have emerged out of the papers interactive online site.  It was a service that tapped into the community for reporters and on-demand stories as the communication shifted from broadcast delivery to multicast conversation.

Warth mentioned, during our brief phone conversation, a couple of other experts he’d talked with.  After reading the story, I learned that one of them was Bernie Dodge (San Diego State University professor and inventor of the Webquest), who’d been relying on Twitter to keep track of friends in the San Diego area.  Another was Andy Carvin, who’s been a student of this phenomena since the Kobe earthquake in 1995. 

The North County Times, as a traditional news service, provides information within an environment of information scarcity.  They sell news content.  What emerged during the wild fires, and was facilitated by the paper’s online presence, was a different kind of news service that was based on information demand and information abundance — and that information was free.  It’s a good long tail story.

..and it makes me wonder how we might provoke such information abundant, demand-oriented learning experience in our classrooms.  Are they happening already outside our classrooms?  How do we tap in? 

It will take more than just the technology.  And it should take less than a wildfire.

Image Citation:
“Canyon Country Fire 10-21-07.” DisneyKrayzie’s Photostream. 22 Oct 2007. 29 Oct 2007 <>.

Author: David Warlick

David Warlick has been an educator for the past 40+ years. He continues to do some writing, but is mostly seeking his next intersect between play, passion and purpose, dabbling in photography, drone videography and music production.