Features

How a flood crisis changes a regional newsroom

As serious floods threaten to overwhelm Townsville, Mumbrella's Zoe Samios speaks to Townsville Bulletin editor Jenna Cairney about how her newsroom has been forced to adapt to the crisis.

In Queensland on Tuesday afternoon, Townsville Bulletin editor Jenna Cairney sits in her office, hopeful the worst of the flood crisis is over. It’s been more than a week of struggle for Cairney and her team, who have balanced the day-to-day news cycle on top of the ongoing natural disaster.

In the last week and a half, her team has been running mostly on adrenalin: operating outside of normal work hours to obtain and provide as much information as possible to the community. The journalists are hungry and passionate, but are running a marathon with no clear end in sight. And unlike the journalists who have flown in to cover the crisis, they, like the community, are at risk of losing their own homes.

Reporter Jacob Miley hands out Townsville Bulletins to flood victims. Picture: Zak Simmonds

Some journalists haven’t made it home for days, house-hopping as they wait for the worst to be over, and Cairney and her family spent last Saturday night sleeping at the paper’s offices.

She tells me this is the worst flood she has witnessed in her time working in regional Australia, and she’s covered a few, including the Warwick and Grafton floods.

In recent months, regional journalism has made headlines as big publishers look to spin off assets to private equity. But the situation in Townsville is an example of regional journalism in its prime: delivering vital information to a community, even if it means personally delivering the newspapers, since 80% of the route is underwater. It also means unlocking articles which were behind a paywall on the website, and most importantly, balancing accuracy of information with personal safety.

“There’s a lot of different things at play,” she tells me. “The challenge is you are weighing up, very heavily, a few different dynamics.”

First and foremost, Cairney is thinking about whether the individuals, their homes and families are safe, before she begins thinking about the risks that come with covering events such as this. Then it’s about weighing up how long the event is going to last.

“You have to make sure that while everyone gets really excited and energetic, and runs on adrenalin at the start of any major disaster, you also have to make sure they are ready to go the distance,” she says. “And the distance doesn’t just mean when the rain stops, it’s helping the community in the recovery mode after, when the adrenalin runs out. It’s so important – and that was one of our key strategies – to make sure that we staggered staff shifts. That was difficult, because they all wanted to be a part of it.”

One of Cairney’s reporters, Sam Bidey, left his home last Thursday, as he didn’t want to be cut off from work. He only just returned home yesterday, to find it an absolute mess.

“He knew it was going to be a mess, but he just said ‘okay, fine, it will be what it will be’” Cairney says. “He’s been working night and day, sleeping on people’s floors, just trying to get the job done. That’s amazing.”

Townsville Bulletin journalist Sam Bidey arrives at his home for the first time after he was told to evacuate due to flood waters. Picture: Zak Simmonds

Bidey is one of a number of reporters who has been working day in, day out, to provide information as best they can. And while their passion is clearly an asset, Cairney must temper this hunger with reminders of the dangers that come with reporting on a flood crisis.

“When the first warnings came through on Saturday, it sounded like armageddon,” she tells me.

“Immediately we pulled all our guys back into the office, because we were worried that there was going to be risk to life. That was so important, putting the safety of our team first, and trying to make decisions based on the best information that we had to hand, and then making sure we only send them out and about again to places we thought were safe, based on the best information we can get.

“That was the hardest part, juggling safety with trying to make sure we were getting the right information to people, and I think we did a good job of getting the balance right.”

Inevitably, distribution of the paper has been affected.

“Yesterday, unfortunately, 80% of our circulation route was cut off with flood waters. We made the call to print regardless, the night before.

“We got the paper out, we did the first edition which came out just before the floodgate completely opened in the dams, so we didn’t actually know at that point how significant the impact was going to be. When the rain kept coming and kept coming, the overflow on the dams was triggered. At that point the warnings were that an unprecedented amount of water was going to flow from the dams into the rush river and everyone in low-lying areas was ordered to get onto high ground. The defence force was pulled back, the SES pulled back, they didn’t quite know how it was going to hit.

“We put out our first edition, it went south, not knowing what would happen there. And the we put out our second edition, and we got a sense that it was bad, it was really bad. There were people on roofs that needed to be rescued, there were elderly people, mums with young bubs standing on tables, all trying to get out of their house.

The reporters went directly to the newsagents, and took bundles of the newspapers in cars to evacuation centres, to provide print readers with the most up to date information.

Jenna Cairney says the balance between personal safety and accuracy of stories has been challenging

Due to the emergency situation, the paywall has been lifted on its website.

“It’s been interesting as well because of the digital subscription model. We make our money from digital subscriptions, we are trying to make a sustainable business, but a lot of our content has been unlocked and free to access, because it is emergency safety information. We very consciously made that decision.

“The other challenge is we are trying to juggle informing the community, making sure everyone is getting the safety messages they need, but also we absolutely need to have a sustainable model of regional journalism.”

Cairney tells me a number of readers have reached out to say they will now subscribe, as they understand the value of the work a paper like hers does in times like these. And while stories including things such as aerial photos of the flood are being blocked from non-subscribers, she says it’s a delicate balance of keeping the paper sustainable.

“When people see what we do, they understand it’s important that they finance it and make it sustainable.”

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