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Unsettled by disaster in the digital age

The Akron-Canton Airport holds a disaster drill every three years as required by the FAA.A few days ago I played death and destruction at the Akron-Canton Airport along with about four-dozen first responders, investigators and reporters at an FAA-mandated disaster drill.

In the drill storyline, a passenger aircraft carrying 124 collided in mid-air with a cargo prop plane carrying two. The exercise gave emergency forces a crucial opportunity to practice worst-case scenarios, and take one more step toward making their training second nature.

As an editor and, for the day, once again a reporter, it gave me a chance to role play and practice juggling sides of my brain, a task we’re all charged with in this digital age: What do our readers need to know first? I scribbled furiously with half of my brain and joined the group in firing questions at the make-believe press conference: Deaths? Was this terrorism? Problems with either plane’s mechanical or safety record? All the while the other half of my brain calculated how long the press conference would take while sending web updates and tweets to readers and editors. Was there enough bandwidth to edit and send photos and video? Would the TV station file first or get a better interview? Were the folks back in our buildings working on crash histories for this airport, this airline, these pilots?

Adrenaline was pumping, and we all having a little fun.

God forgive us. Even a faux disaster is news.

Here, however, is where it got weird.

The CEO took the podium about an hour after the crash was supposed to have occurred. He gave us a statement, told us he would not be taking questions.

We all would be taken to view the crash site on a bus – together, a little herd of info stenographers – when it’s safe. We would be wearing fluorescent armbands emblazoned with the word PRESS. In the mean time, we can get information required for our reports on the airport Web site, which has been newly tooled to turn from blue to black in case of emergency. The site would provide statements on a given emergency along with a list of contacts – sources who also will likely be giving statements rather than talking because they no longer need to be on site to communicate in real time with reporters.

It was the best and worst of times: We can now get news to people faster than ever with the exact same technology that can be used to keep us all at arm’s length.

We learned from remarks of two local fire chiefs and a spokesman from the mythical airline that four people had been taken to area hospitals, chunks of burning aircraft had fallen from the sky and landed near a high school was on lockdown while its stadium blazed. Loved ones of crash victims were ferried to a local hotel where representatives of the pretend airline gave them life-changing news. Bits of counterfeit carnage were being recovered by federal types on the ground in a field near one runway.

All this we knew because someone told us, and because it was posted on the Web. And at least for the purposes of the exercise, it was supposed to be good enough.

Almost seven years ago, I was one of a team of Knight Ridder reporters covering Hurricane Katrina from the Biloxi (Mississippi) Sun Herald. We slept on creaky cots in the circulation room, took makeshift “Navy showers” with buckets in the parking lot and lived on canned ravioli and peanut butter for longer than I care to remember. We were a smelly, determined group. For a brief while, an Internet signal was our main connection to readers and the outside world.  Throughout the day we would file continuous web updates as well as report, edit and deliver the print newspaper to people who weren’t fortunate enough to have power, water or sanitation, and who often were missing loved ones.

Our workflow was before its time: We told people what happened on the Web then told them why in the newspaper.

And in a world in chaos, people need to know why, so much so that they will step out of lines for food and water to get the information we provide.  That’s a trust that needs to be repeated here, years later when so much information is available digitally.

Getting information to people quickly is a blessing, but we can never be fooled or become so complacent by the quantity of information given to us that we forget to seek what readers need to know.

During Katrina, lots of government agencies communicated with their world, and us, a good deal of the time through email and the Web. But newsrooms weren’t yet working with skeleton staffs and were unused to communicating electronically, so it just never occurred to us to settle for what a source handed us.

We used technology when it was practical. When it wasn’t, we got out of our offices and into the community. We told stories of loss, generosity and inspiration. We asked business people and officials working in the Gulf to account for themselves, face-to-face.

That’s not to say that the airport folks would use the web site as shield, there’s no reason from any behavior in the past to believe that’s the case, but some agency will.

It’s our job to know which tool to use, and to go places where it’s sometimes not that easy to be.

It’s unlikely the next event that brings us all together will be a drill, but it will be a test.

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