Originally created 09/24/05

Online technology used to chronicle Hurricane Rita



As Hurricane Rita approached, editors at the Houston Chronicle decided to experiment: They hand-picked about a dozen Web diarists and asked them to post regular dispatches on the newspaper's online blog - all without any editorial intervention.

"One of the benefits to blogs is that they tend to be more personal, they tend to provide more the emotional feel of an event," said Dwight Silverman, the Chronicle's interactive journalism editor. "In traditional reporting you put on your poker face and do your writing.... It's not supposed to be the writer's emotions."

The Chronicle set up a second blog for its own staff writers - this one edited - to post anecdotes and other info before they appeared in any stories, print or online. And science writer Eric Berger devoted his regular blog, SciGuy, to the storm.

Besides the Chronicle's blogs, Web surfers were able to get firsthand accounts Friday through podcasts and photographs. They could track the storm using Google-powered maps. And they could find housing and other emergency information from government and private Web sites.

At the Chronicle's citizen-contributed blog, Stormwatchers, one participant talked of being packed and ready to evacuate, while another wrote of the calm before the storm: "Our dog is happy, running around the yard, and having fun."

Silverman said the newspaper picked experienced bloggers from the region, voices it expected would be civil, lively and informative.

"We had been looking at doing more of these kinds of things, and this seems like a perfect venue for this kind of experiment," he said. "One of the nice things about the Web is if it didn't work, if it descended into babble, we can turn it off. So far it's been valuable."

At The Wall Street Journal's Web site, News Tracker summarized the latest developments in a blog format - reverse chronological order. The site, re-activated after an initial 12-day Hurricane Katrina run, even links to resources at other news sites - something common in blogging but still rare for traditional media.

Meanwhile, Russell Holliman and a few fellow podcasters from Houston decided to combine the emerging audio-distribution format with traditional Internet radio.

They established a live streaming feed called RitaCast and made arrangements to produce a new personal audio dispatch every hour, each about 20 minutes long. The group was even trying to take calls from listeners - something rare with podcasts.

Each dispatch was packaged into an MP3 file and distributed as a podcast through Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes and other networks that automatically distributing free audio subscriptions.

"It really just did start out as a technical experiment," Holliman said. "We wanted to see if it can be done. It introduces a new format for podcasts where people can actually get the live interaction with the listener."

Some Texas newspapers, including the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, suspended their print editions and turned to the Internet instead. Others, including the Victoria Advocate, asked readers to submit photographs for online posting.

Visitors to FLHurricane.com could track the movement of Hurricane Rita on a map, the colors of the markers changing from green to red as the storm intensified. The site combines Google Inc.'s mapping tools with data from the National Weather Service.

The site's administrator, Mike Cornelius, has software to automatically pull latitude and longitude coordinates from the government advisories.

Resources set up for Hurricane Katrina also have been adapted for Rita.

Among them: MoveOn.org's Web site for connecting refugees with those who have housing to spare.

On the Net:

Stormwatchers: http://blogs.chron.com/stormwatchers

RitaCast: http://houstonpodcasting.net

Rita map: http://flhurricane.com/googlemap.php?2005s18

MoveOn project: http://www.hurricanehousing.org