I’ve been proud of the Charleston Daily Mail”s coverage of the water contamination that hit our community Jan. 9.
Our main goal during the situation was to inform and help our community. Nevertheless, I’m pleased to see our staff be recognized for its work.
Digital First Media recognized the Daily Mail with a monthly “DFMie” for the region that includes its publications in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Here is our entry, followed by some very nice comments by judges:
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 live blog using CoverItLive to give residents immediate updates. The live blog 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 and 7,439 clicks.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, our Twitter and our Facebook to let people know other places they could find bottled water being distributed.Other highlights of our early coverage included two explanatory videos about how the crisis happened. The first, by Elaine McMillion and Dave Boucher, got 1,281 views in our NDN player and 4,208 on YouTube. A second 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. Eventually the story became distrust.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 and a story and video by Marcus Constantino.On Jan. 22, when a little more time had passed, 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.The response to our coverage, in terms of readership and numbers, has been impressive. But what the stats really mean is we do and have done a good job of informing our community by whatever means we can. Residents seem to appreciate our effort and our commitment to this story.
The Digital First Media awards are judged by the staffs of other newsrooms. The judges had kind words about the Daily Mail’s coverage:
The Charleston Daily Mail deftly managed the Elk River contamination, providing all-angles coverage without diluting content. The show-stealer is the artistry of videographer Elaine McMillion in “West Virginia Water Woes, 36 Hour Recap,” which is also a testament to the explanatory reporting skills of David Boucher. This video is not just informative – it’s striking. I was further impressed by the work of reporters Marcus Constantino and Matt Murphy; a hot shower well-earned by all.
It excelled all judging criteria areas, especially the digital skills and community engagement. 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. Overall, it was a really nice package of stories using the online medium.
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. Their use of social media put the story in a new light and helped reach as many people as possible in an evolving and vital story. It was simply not enough to run it in print. The live blog, the videos, the how-to videos all were exactly what the public needed from their local community newspaper organization. I personally liked the humanitarian element of passing out water bottles and assuaging community fears during a tumultuous time. I personally would have loved to been on the “bottle water tasting committee.” All in all, it all came together for this staff. The people certainly lost faith in the water company and their government, but they certainly gained trust in their local newspaper. Kudos.
Author: Brad McElhinny is editor and publisher of The Charleston Daily Mail. I’m a Parkersburg native and a Marshall graduate. I live in Charleston with my wife — we’ll call her “Karen” — my two little girls, an easily excitable terrier, an aging obese cat and, now, a kitten named “Sweetie.” Read more from this author