Denver Post photographers hiked, biked and waded to shoot floods

By Linda Shapley

Denver Post

While the entire Denver Post staff put in a Herculean effort to cover the floods, the Denver Post photo staff demonstrated resilience and tenacity to show readers the huge amount of devastation that hit the state. Photographers hiked, biked and waded to capture the images.

Photographer Helen H. Richardson and videographer Mahala Gaylord used mountain bikes to reach Jamestown, which had been cut off by floodwaters for five days. Richardson, a resident of a mountain town herself, made it her mission to get in by whatever means necessary to reach towns that were cut off by floodwaters.

Photographer RJ Sangosti wore hip-waders for many days — even as his own home was threatened by floodwaters — documenting the damage in Boulder and Weld County.

Editors put lives on hold so they could continue to update photo galleries and make constant requests to the National Guard to get onto helicopters. That persistence paid off with coverage of a dramatic air rescue.

This map shows all the places where Post photographers went during the floods. That 14 photographers and videographers and 9 editors did all of this work shows how the team can come together.

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Michael Price and Kristina Scala explain their reporting on racist text messages

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By Michael N. Price & Kristina Scala

Daily Local News

Michael N. Price

In late August we began to hear rumors regarding the departures of two senior administrators in the Coatesville Area School District. Several days later we confirmed the resignations of both the district’s superintendent and the high school’s director of athletics and activities.

At the time the district declined to provide the public with any information explaining the departures.

Around the same time, an anonymous source faxed us several pages of text message transcripts that showed vulgar exchanges between to cell phone numbers. The source also included handwritten notes that indicated two former administrators, superintendent Richard Como and athletic director Jim Donato, were responsible for the exchanges.

Kristina Scala

We knew that if authentic, the transcripts in our possession would create public outrage. The exchanges were not only beyond offensive, but they included conversations that made apparent references to specific students and faculty members.

In an attempt to authenticate the documents, we filed a series of Right-to-Know requests with the district in search of a list of district-issued cell phones and the employee’s name associated with each number.

Before the district responded to our request, our reporting led us to two district administrators who we learned were the first to discover and report the messages to both the school board and to law enforcement.

After multiple attempts to set up a meeting, we eventually were able to sit down with our two sources. They provided us with a bombshell.

Not only did we receive over 100 pages of text message transcripts, our sources also provided us with a copy of Donato’s address book, a document that allowed us to confirm each number listed in the transcript.

With these documents in hand, we printed our Sept. 22 story that instantly created a firestorm that received national attention. Our coverage was credited with breaking the story in both regional and national publications.

Two days later over 1,000 people attended a regularly scheduled school board meeting. The board was scheduled to approve Como and Donato’s resignations. The public demanded the board fire the pair instead.

During the meeting our two sources, whose identity we kept secret, publicly revealed themselves in a dramatic address to the school board and those in attendance. With news cameras running our sources, two high-level district administrators, confirmed the Daily Local News’ entire story.

We have been humbled by the response to our coverage. The chance to cover a story like this one is the reason we decided to pursue a career in journalism to begin with.

To this point we have printed over 50 stories covering the scandal. The discovery of the text messages has led to criminal investigations of not only the two administrators responsible for the exchanges, but also of district officials and lawyers in response to the handling of the situation.

We continue to follow the story, and we hope our coverage will result in meaningful change. We are thankful for this recognition.

Nels Johnson explains project on fallen firefighters

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Nels Johnson

By Nels Johnson

Marin Independent Journal

I’ve done lots of stories on generous public employee pay and pension benefits, unfunded liability and related matters. The firefighter report started out last spring as an effort to look at another side of the pay issue: the county’s most dangerous public employment jobs.

I was aware of a few of the firefighter deaths, and soon focused on them as research turned up a number of on-duty fatalities over the years that even firehouse veterans were unaware of.

The deaths of 19 firefighters in Arizona in June added urgency to the effort, but it is difficult in a run-and-gun newsroom to devote blocks of time to long-range enterprise, so I worked the story in odd hours over the summer.

I spent lots of time in the library reading microfilm of old newspapers, talked to more than three dozen firefighters in 14 agencies, historians and others as well as local, regional, state and national firefighter union representatives.

Although plaques and related memorials at several agencies honor some of the fallen, there is now talk of a memorial honoring them all at the county Civic Center.

Although the presentation included tweets and a Tout, one big lesson learned was that thought must be given to the various social media opportunities at the beginning of a project, rather than at the end.

In that regard, after a reporter has spent lots of time to nail down a good read, all others on the team must focus tightly on seamless execution of even basic presentation opportunities.

Sandy Mazza explains her DFMie-winning stories

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By Sandy Mazza

The Daily Breeze

Sandy Mazza

Politics in the Los Angeles suburb of Carson – 20 square miles of land formerly occupied mostly by garbage dumps and oil production facilities – is notoriously dirty.

In recent years, City Council members have kept themselves out of the slammer but they have engaged in enough drama to produce their own soap opera. The council has routinely embarrassed itself with petty fights over such things as who gets to hand out free turkeys at Thanksgiving, which members can sit next to each other at council meetings, and which props they are all allowed to have in official city photos.

So, when the council majority unexpectedly, inexplicably fired its seasoned and extremely ethical city manager this summer, another desperate power grab by the council majority (led by a mayor who unapologetically lobbied for years to have a street named for himself) was likely.

We couldn’t have anticipated that they would do something as blatantly self-serving and unethical as hiring an incompetent city manager only because he agreed to do their bidding without question. But that’s what they did, and this is how we reported the events as they played out after City Manager David Biggs was canned by the three-member City Council majority in June:

  1. Shortly after Biggs was terminated, I got an anonymous letter from someone in the city’s government who explained that one councilman was behind a plan to bring in a friend who wasn’t qualified to lead the city, but who promised to do the council majority’s bidding without question. The letter included a list of city employees the councilman wanted fired.
  2. On August 8, the City Council majority hired Sam Ghaly, a building and code check professional with a sloppy resume full of misstatements, to lead a city that administers a nearly $70 million budget and accounts for a population of 90,000. Ghaly was not given a background check, or any sort of review by Human Resources. His resume wasn’t even verified. One councilwoman who opposed the hire said publicly she had serious concerns about his lack of qualifications.
  3. August 12: Daily Breeze article exposed Ghaly’s lack of qualifications for the job, and asked why the council chose someone secretly and without experience.
  4. August 23: Daily Breeze article about apparent inconsistencies or lies in Ghaly’s resume, and the city’s lack of scrutiny of his resume or background. Questions the motive the City Council majority had for hiring Ghaly.
  5. A group of Carson residents who oppose Mayor Jim Dear seized the opportunity to attack his motives in leading these decisions. They protested at a City Council meeting on Sept. 3, after Ghaly had fired four top city employees (whose names had been on the anonymous letter I got). The council later fired Ghaly at that meeting.
  6. Sept. 4: Daily Breeze article about Ghaly being fired. The council was apparently reacting to publicity about Ghaly’s decision to send the city’s economic development director home on paid administrative leave for a month and fork out severance payments to other terminated employees, among other concerns.
  7. Sept. 21: Daily Breeze package of in-depth articles answering why Biggs was fired and Ghaly was hired, included information I got from 10-12 interviews with City Hall employees and public officials, and exposing how council members used Ghaly to direct at least one contract to a company owned by their friend.
  8. Nov. 6: Councilman Elito Santarina apologized publicly for his role in hiring Ghaly and supporting him. The City Council approved a plan to hire an executive search firm to find qualified city manager candidates.

I was able to fully report out this story because City Editor Frank Suraci encouraged it, as did other editors in the group – Ben Demers and Frank Girardot. Everyone pulled together to be involved in the story, edit it, suggest lines of questioning, and to put together graphics and art for the piece, which included several Touts of the resident protest.

Julia Prodis Sulek and Darryl Matsuda discuss America’s Cup coverage

Julia Prodis Sulek

Darryl Matsuda

Julia Prodis Sulek and Darryl Matsuda explain their DFMie-winning effort in tweets:

Daily Camera staff worked round the clock in flood coverage

By Matt Sebastian

Daily Camera

“This is insane.”

The Camera’s assistant city editor, Elizabeth Clark, sent me that text at 9:52 p.m. on the night of Wednesday, Sept. 11. When I had left the office about three hours earlier, our night reporter, Joe Rubino, was making calls on scanner reports of street flooding in Erie, east of Boulder. It had been raining for days, and this wasn’t exactly surprising.

But by 10 p.m., things had gotten exponentially worse, across Boulder County, and Elizabeth recognized this was a huge story. She and I texted back and forth over the next hour or so as she rejiggered the front page ahead of our looming print deadline, and worked with Joe to update our website and keep people informed via Twitter and Facebook.

Having already called our photo staff, Elizabeth decided at 11:34 p.m. that we needed more reporters, too: “OK, we need people. Ped bridge about to collapse at CU. Fourmile being evacuated.”

At that point, reporters Mitch Byars and Alicia Wallace — our only city desk reporters who actually live in Boulder — headed into the office, as did I, from Denver. Alicia never made it; her car was caught in the floodwaters at 55th and Arapahoe, and Elizabeth sent Joe, the night reporter, out in our staff SUV to rescue her. Alicia’s car was a total loss, and the two of them couldn’t make it through the high waters back to the Camera’s office. They retreated to Alicia’s apartment.

By 1:30 a.m., I made it to the Camera, despite most of the major roads into Boulder, including U.S. 36, having been closed. Through that first night, Elizabeth, Mitch and I listened to the scanner, made calls and updated dailycamera.com, Twitter and Facebook in an attempt to keep our readers informed of the weather disaster that was unfolding.

By that point, we had three photographers out in Boulder, including photo editor Paul Aiken, plus Jeremy Papasso from our staff and Matt Jonas from the Longmont Times-Call. Paul was able to get photos sent back to us for posting online, and, more importantly, was shooting and uploading what would become hugely viewed Tout videos of the flooding downtown, including CU students playing in the waters in flooded underpasses around campus.

We worked through the night, not really comprehending the magnitude, yet, of the flooding. By morning, it became apparent that in addition to widespread street and basement flooding in Boulder, which affected thousands of residents, whole mountain towns had been cut off entirely, with, we would later learn, hundreds of homes torn apart by water and mud.

That Friday, we staffed up and spent the day getting people out into Boulder and our communities as best we could — it would be days before we could get anywhere near the mountain towns — as the rain continued to pound Boulder County. That second night, Friday, was even worse, with more standing and rushing water on city streets, and Boulder essentially shut down. Once again, we staffed overnight, this time both by choice and necessity; while we planned to have Mitch and myself work the web overnight, Elizabeth and three other reporters were stuck in the newsroom, too, unable to get out of Boulder.

The rains let up slightly Saturday, and the airlift began — the largest since Hurricane Katrina. We covered the homecomings as mountain residents were flown down into Boulder on Black Hawk helicopters, and, eventually, would get on one of the choppers as it rescued residents near Jamestown.

Needless to say, we staffed up that weekend, with all reporters and city desk editors working at least one of their days off, and our tiny photo staff working, for the most part, seven days straight. The rains tapered off, finally, on Monday, and that’s when the real task began: documenting with stories, photos and video the lives suddenly uprooted by floodwaters across Boulder County.

It was “all hands” for at least a week, and our staff, each and every photographer and reporter, was unbelievably dedicated to telling this story, and telling it well. As journalists, it’s easy to forget or take for granted that what we do really matters. We deal with so much negativity these days it can take an event of this magnitude to serve as a reminder, that, in times of life-and-death crises — and we did lose four people to the floodwaters in our county alone — people turn to us for vital information.

It was immediately evident that the people of Boulder County were looking to the Daily Camera as a key source of information in a time of huge crisis, and I believe our staff more than delivered.

Some important lessons learned:

As a manager, it would be good to always know not just of where your staff lives, but what kind of cars they drive. Makes a huge difference when trying to send reporters and photographers into a flood zone. We deployed reporters quickly the first night, but hadn’t taken into account how hard it would be to get through the waters that were inundating Boulder.

Social media first, website second. The information was flowing so fast those first couple days, our priority was to tweet it out first, then get the site updated. In the past, we didn’t always do it this way, and, in our last major disaster, the Fourmile Fire in 2010, we certainly didn’t make Twitter the priority it now is. We did much better this time, and people recognized us for that.

Tell people’s stories. It’s so easy to get caught up in the “breaking” part of breaking news and just report the latest news and headlines, but there were many, many people in a lot of trouble, and we could have done an even better job helping convey what they were going through. It’s something I find we have to always work to remind ourselves of, but it makes for better reporting.

And, finally: Waterproofs pants aren’t really waterproof.

Times-Call covered nothing but flooding for a week

By John Vahlenkamp

Times-Call

About 1:15 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 12, education reporter Victoria Camron awoke me with a phone call.

After working that Wednesday evening, Victoria had stayed up, following reports of flash flooding in Boulder. By 1 a.m., flooding was being reported up and down the foothills, with torrents of water rushing down canyons throughout Boulder County.

“You’d better get up,” she said.

I logged on at my desk, launched a police scanner app and Twitter, and began seeing and hearing what Victoria was talking about. I called photographer Greg Lindstrom and told him I needed him in Lyons, a small town tucked into the base of the foothills, where two creeks converge to become the St. Vrain River.

By the time Greg arrived at Lyons, just before 2 a.m., the highway into the town was closed, so he stood in the rain, capturing photos illuminated by lights from a nearby business and from a sheriff’s car’s flashers, watching water pour over the road in front of him (and, I learned later, behind him), listening as unknown objects struck the bridge over the river just to his south.

Greg’s photos, and his eyewitness account of what he was seeing became the first Times-Call story I posted about the flood. It would be updated through 11:30 Thursday night.

Good thing Greg didn’t make it into town. (The National Guard did not get into town to rescue stranded residents until Friday morning. Greg talked his way onto a truck headed in, but that’s another story.) I would not have been able to send Greg back to Longmont, where I directed him to a mobile home park along the St. Vrain River. There, around 3 a.m., he spoke with residents who had been asked to leave their homes, and he took some of the first photos of the river, which by then appeared to be three to four feet above its banks.

After he stopped by the evacuation center, which the city had opened about an hour earlier, I sent Greg home and called our city reporter and another photographer. I told them to team up and head to the east side of town, where police were reporting flooding. I notified several staffers to meet in the office by 7:30; others I sent directly to parts of our coverage area. I assigned a reporter and photographer to Boulder County west of Longmont, including Lyons; a reporter to southwest Weld County east of us; and two reporter/photographer teams to Longmont — one north of the river and one south of the river, because the city had been cut in half.

For the next week, our staff covered nothing but flood news, working in early and second shifts, often 12 hours per day. It was the best breaking-news work I have seen in any newsroom I’ve worked. Every member of the staff stepped up, writing two or three stories per day, plus “flood briefs,” with online updates and social media alerts throughout their shifts.

Throughout that week, members of the public — in person and via emails and social media postings — continually thanked us for keeping them updated. The first complete day of our flood coverage — Sept. 13 — our website had just under 700,000 page views. That’s about 20 times the average.

Reporter-Herald covered breaking flood news relentlessly, then stepped back for a broader look

By Jeff Stahla

Reporter-Herald

Residents of Loveland, Colo., know too well the power of water.

In July 1976, the state’s most deadly natural disaster claimed 144 lives when a wall of water swept down the Big Thompson Canyon west of the city in an afternoon’s time.

In September, the disaster occurred in slow motion. Instead of a thunderstorm producing a flash flood, a larger system stalled over the mountains of Northern Colorado, turning rivers into chisels that scraped away homes, fields and roads — in some cases, to bedrock. Because the river rose so slowly, only two lives were lost; however, more than 1,000 residents were stranded because roads and bridges were swept away.

For two weeks, the staff at the Loveland Reporter-Herald did what any journalist would do in the face of such an emergency: Tell the stories of those affected by the flood and inform the rest of the community what to expect and how to help. Our Web presence was key because delivery routes were severed.

On Sept. 29, however, we pivoted briefly away from the first draft of history to what I would call the second draft.

In a special, keepsake section, the staff put into context what had been presented online and in a dozen print editions in the previous weeks.

Key to the effort was a comprehensive timeline, gathered from many Twitter feeds, firsthand accounts and, when needed, official sources. However, the section also brought together the best photography and storytelling from staff — as well as a portion where community members could tell their stories.

The ad-supported section was so successful that the edition has sold out — with requests coming in daily for more.

In the years and decades to come, we know that our efforts will be the source material for how our community passes on the story of the 2013 Front Range flood.

‘Friday Night Live’ football coverage won DFMie for Ohio sports staffs

By Cheryl Sadler

The News-Herald

Prep sports writers at The News-Herald and The Morning Journal have been tweeting from football games and using designated hashtags — #nhfootball and #mjfootball — for the past couple of seasons. This year, I decided to aggregate the coverage in a way that readers who aren’t on Twitter — and those who don’t know about our Twitter presence — would be able to follow along with the live game coverage. I dubbed it “Friday Night Live.”

Each week, I built ScribbleLive events scheduled for Friday nights, set to pull in tweets from our staffers at the game plus anyone using the hashtags. The post pinned to the top of each live blog included the list of games we were staffing plus the hashtag readers could use to add their own coverage to the live blog. Additionally, the staff in the office would contribute by tweeting and retweeting scores and updates from high schools, athletic departments, sports media outside our staff and other vetted Twitter accounts (followers and community members we know and trust to give us good information).

The ScribbleLive events were embedded in blog posts with the same label, and a link to that label was added to the navigation of the websites. Any day of the week, a reader can see that we provide live coverage of Friday night football games, and know what page to bookmark to come back to it later.

The live coverage was incredibly easy to implement. I took a platform we already knew how to use to aggregate information we were already dispersing. Both elements are key to the success of the live coverage.

John Kampf, the primary user of The News-Herald prep sports Twitter account, @NHPreps, loves connecting with readers on Twitter.

“It’s encouraging to see how much fan interaction we have during the games — asking for specific players, other games that we might not be covering that we might have knowledge of, and just people who come to us as a primary news source for breaking news of high school games,” Kampf said.

Relationships benefit Laura Amato’s high school sports coverage

By Laura Amato

The Record

Laura Amato

I think a good part of my “personality” as a reporter comes from the relationship I have with my audience. I’m not that much older than the kids that I’m covering and that seems to make them more receptive to my questions and story ideas. In fact, when I was working on our high school football tab, being able to communicate with the kids who are actually playing the sport was a huge benefit to trying to make sure everything came together.

It’s my belief at that what I’m writing – about high school sports – should be aimed for the kids playing high school sports. That’s why it’s so important to me that I use social media to make sure that the kids feel involved and, then in turn, want to read what I’m writing about. For the past three years, it’s worked and it worked when I was working on our high school football tab. Athletes were more than willing to go on camera and help promo the tab, give me quotes and help me set up interviews by providing practice times over Twitter.

Honestly, that’s what has made my job so rewarding over the past three years. These kids are interested in reading the stories and hoping for coverage. As a journalist, it’s fantastic to see, especially at a high school level. These aren’t professional athletes. These are high school kids who are only playing for the sake of playing and it’s fantastic to be able to highlight their accomplishments.