Five “hurricane stories” you can write if it’s not even raining on your campus

When I worked in Mizzou at the Columbia Missourian, we would have our 3 p.m. editorial budget meetings each day where people from all of the desks of the paper would discuss the next day’s issue. Most of the content was local, as our reporters (students) scoured the area for whatever was happening within the confines of Boone County. However, we also had a wire/national editor who was responsible for pitching pieces that AP pushed out that day.

Every time a natural disaster would hit some part of the world, we always had the same conversation. The wire editor (a student) would pitch the story about it: “Hurricane (whatever one) just hit land (wherever it hit land). Officials say you have (whatever amount of damage and deaths). The senior member of our staff (a faculty member with decades of professional and educational experience) would always respond the same way: “When it starts raining on Cherry Street, let me know and we’ll run it.”

Her point was that until we had a local angle on something like that, our audience was likely to get news of the event elsewhere and that our job was to stick to stuff in our area. It was a bit deflating for the student wire editors, but the point remains a good one: You need to serve your audience, and in most cases, that’s going to be something local.

With that in mind, here are five basic “hurricane-related stories” you can dig into if your campus isn’t cleaning up from Harvey or in the path of Irma:

LOCAL ASSISTANCE EFFORTS: This is among the easiest stories to do as a localization, in that the urge to help people who are hurt is a natural one. You can look to your school itself to see if it’s taking donations of food, money or other needed items to send to the victims of the hurricanes. You can also look to see if any student groups are doing anything of a similar nature. Fraternities and sororities often have national offices that can coordinate larger efforts among their member chapters, especially if they have chapters on campuses in the path of the storm. Look at any student organization that is usually doing some sort of “help-based” initiative like working with Habitat for Humanity or doing Alternative Spring Breaks, as they might have a plan to head to the area and assist in the recovery efforts.

LOCAL CONNECTIONS: Another smart localization opportunity comes from finding local people who have connections with the area of the disaster. Students in some cases live in those areas but are going to school on your campus. (During Hurricane Katrina, it turned out my TA for the newsroom lived in the path of the storm and still had tons of family down there. She actually watched her home wash away on CNN.) You might have faculty who have colleagues working in that area or students with friends attending schools affected by the disaster. Put out the Bat Signal on your various social media channels and see if you can find people willing to tell you what has happened to their friends and family and if they are planning to do anything in response to this. (After she got back from helping her family work through the aftermath of Katrina, Kim did a “first-person, as-told-to” piece that won several awards and helped her sort through her experience.)

YOU GOT A PLAN?: Not every campus will experience a hurricane, but most spots in this country have their own types of disasters that need a plan. You don’t want to hear this from your campus administration:

Some places deal with tornadoes, while other places deal with earthquakes. Some places get frozen  while other places get scorched. What plans are in place for your campus when the disaster du jour hits? How often does the campus review these plans and how much effort does the administration make in letting students know about them?


ARE YOU COVERED? Much of the discussion after a disaster is how how can people recover from it. From friends and former colleagues in the area, I’m hearing about how “wind coverage” isn’t the same as “water coverage” or “flood coverage” when it comes to insurance. Most people I knew in college were lucky enough to think about getting any kind of coverage for any kind of disaster, ranging from a tornado hitting their apartment complex to a roommate who escaped under the cover of night with their laptop.

Renters insurance is always an interesting topic in terms of cost and value. It’s also worth a look into seeing what kinds of coverage kids who live in dorms have. So, if a pipe explodes in the dorm, some idiot with a homemade waffle iron burns down half of Smith hall or the “there’s no way a tornado hits us” proclamation turns out to be false, how safe is their stuff? Some places have limitations on how much money they’ll cover or what can be replaced. Clothing, in particular can be a costly thing:

Look into what mechanisms are in place to help people recover if something bad happens in your area or what precautions they should take in terms of insuring their stuff to make recovery more possible.


A SHARED EXPERIENCE: I have never lived through a hurricane or an earthquake, but I once experienced a tornado running nearby. The two-inch-thick galvanized-glass windows in my apartment were bowing in and it was one of the first times I really wondered why I moved into a “tornado alley” area.

Many people in your area might not know what the disaster actually FEELS like in terms of the actual event, the devastation, the losses and the recovery. However, some people in your area might have lived through a similar disaster to the one you are covering, so go talk to them. You can learn a lot from watching CNN and hearing Wolf Blitzer use the word “devastating” in all of its iterations, but having a person known to your community explain what it’s like wading through chest-deep water in her living room has a completely different feel. Again, reach out and see who is available and what they can share.

Many other stories matter and will pop up through brainstorming, so if you think of something worth noting, feel free to chip in on the comment list below.

And for those of you in the area of Harvey, Irma and whatever the heck is behind Irma, please be safe. We need you.

My DSLR camera can beat up your iPhone

A photographer’s adage is the best camera is the one you have with you. Since most journalists have a mobile phone with them at all times, it can often be the default option for capturing images and video while on an assignment.

However, professional photographers carry a ton of equipment and it’s not because they need the cardio. The various lenses, camera bodies and ancillary equipment can make a difference between a great shot and a lousy one.

Tim Gleason, a professor of journalism at UW-Oshkosh and an award-winning former news photographer, often has to patiently explain to students (and some faculty members) why the sentence, “I have an iPhone, so I’m a photographer” isn’t accurate. Tim was gracious enough to give us the top five reasons a professional set of photography equipment is superior to a point-and-click smartphone camera:

  1. Cell phones have smaller sensors that have less dynamic range—the ability to record details in highlight and shadow areas. The so-called “megapixel race” means manufacturers are putting more megapixels (think of millions of mini cameras on a sensor), but the dimensions of the sensors don’t grow in proportion to the increase in megapixels. Interchangeable lens cameras (ILCs) like digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) and mirrorless models have larger sensors so those mini cameras that gather light can be larger and better at gathering light.
  2. Most cell phones rely on “digital zooms” that don’t zoom at all. A true zoom lens has internal lens elements that move into different positions, which makes the subject larger or smaller.  Cell phones’ digital zoom is simply a crop of the picture. An optical zoom is the only true zoom. Cropping and enlarging an image will reduce its quality, possibly to the point of not making it publishable.
  3. Cell phones are notoriously easy to move while taking a picture or video. They are comparatively lightweight, so it is easy to move the camera while taking a picture. This results in a blurry image. ILCs are designed to be held for comfort, and their build (weight and dimensions) helps to avoid camera shake while taking the picture.
  4. Any camera works best with average daylight scenes. However, much of life occurs outside of the ideal scenario. This is when cell phones have trouble. Most cannot have their shutter speeds, apertures and ISO (sensor sensitivity rating) manually changed to specific settings. While some apps enable these changes, the cell phones do not have the full range of controls of ILCs.
  5. Cell phone manufacturers were ahead of ILCs in video development, but the ILCs have caught up. Not only is 4K readily available albeit it rarely needed, ILCs are now offering more video settings to control, accessories for video production that work more naturally with ILCs than the small cell phones, and better image quality because of those larger sensors.