Saturday, April 12, 2008

An Overwhelming Story

I sat down today with an undergraduate at the University of Portland, who wanted to interview me about my experiences covering the Mount St. Helens Eruption. She said she wanted to know about what it was like covering events in May of 1980 and how small papers, like ours, The Longview Daily News, and large papers differed in their coverage.

As I all too frequently do, I questioned the questions.

Our coverage was notable (we won a Pulitzer for it) because it didn’t stop with May or with even the succeeding large eruptions that went on into the summer of 1980. Instead we stayed with the story of the dangerous aftermath for the next three years. A paper with a volcano nearby could justify covering it systematically and routinely, just as schools, politics, and the criminal justice system are covered daily by "beat" reporters assigned to them.

As important as the events of May were (particularly May 18th), the months and seasons that followed were critical to our readers and the very survival of our community. That was the point I made to my interviewer as we talked. News coverage that adheres to a 24-hour news cycle is missing most of what is going on in the world. Events unfold over days, weeks, years, centuries. At the extreme, millennial geologic time (real “mountain time” if you will) escapes the news, until one day geology literally blows up.

As for small papers versus large papers, as different as they are, in a natural disaster the most important distinction is the “near” paper versus the “farther-away” paper. The closer you are to the story, the more important it is to you and your readers. Particularly when proximity equals danger. The Daily News was all over the Mount St. Helens story because the very survival of our community was at stake.

Not so for the Seattle Times or The Oregonian.

And the growing threat became more and more apparent the more we found out about the destruction the volcano had caused to the watershed with its multiple tributaries that fed sludge and sediment into the beds of the rivers flowing toward our town. The new, unstable lakes that grew in those equally new valley basins beneath the snow-packed volcano were storage basins for flash floods of fluid with the consistency of wet concrete. Our paper was the first to write about that danger, a danger of entombment. We may have been the last to do so. No other community or news organization cared the way ours did. How could they?

When I finished this rambling account, I could see that my student interviewer had a list of 10 or so questions. But after asking a couple and listening to more of my extended answers to them, she said that I had answered all the rest.

I fear I may have overwhelmed her with a story that remains to this day exactly that — overwhelming.

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