The New Zealand earthquake and the (amazing) Christchurch Press

How do you spot a journalist in the chaos surrounding a disaster? As a general rule of thumb I’d suggest they’ll be the ones running in the opposite direction to the rest of the crowd.

I guess most journos have experienced different degrees of this – heading towards something that they’d prefer not to, either because of natural curiosity or because they are more fearful of their news editor than whatever lies ahead.

But very few have experienced anything like that in the video below, where Christchurch Press, NZ, staff, headed out to report on an earthquake measuring 50 on the Richter Scale. I felt very privileged to be able to see how they reacted – both in the immediate aftermath and in the ensuing days and weeks – and the insight came thanks to Gareth Codd, who is general manager for sister publication the Southland Times.

Gareth was drafted in to help the Christchurch Press staff organise themselves and continue reporting and publishing immediately after the quake – he was chosen as he hadn’t been involved and had no family in Christchurch. That meant he could think about the immediate problems without having the personal issues to deal with as well.
Gareth was back home in the UK last month, and gave me permission to use a version of an internal Fairfax Media Powerpoint presentation on this blog. It’s uploaded here as a video.*

Listening to Gareth’s account of the organisation needed to produce an edition of the paper – cobbled together by reporters on laptops and mobile devices as they sat al fresco amid the wreckage – and the logistics of delivering to news agents and homes on streets they had no idea even existed any more, was fascinating.

Digitally, there was no network – anyone trying to log on to find out what was happening couldn’t get online and the paper became many people’s touchstone (although sales rose in the days after the quake, they have fallen back again – how soon readers lapse back into indifference!) Emergency services also used the paper (and probably other media) to get information out fast.

The Press is still being produced out of portable buildings although its offices have since been rebuilt, and the teams are preparing to move back into them. One colleague died and several were seriously injured in the quake, many were badly shocked but still elected to work that day… and kept coming back to work in the following days to get the news out.

Gareth explained one of the biggest problems managers faced was convincing people to stop working, to go home and let someone else take up the story.
I wonder if that’s partly because journalists see and experience things you wouldn’t expect to in many other professions (this has obviously changed a lot in recent years – I guess the days of journos ducking under the crime scene tape for a quick chat are gone forever) and maybe putting on the ‘journalist’ persona helps you process that. It’s when you go back to being Joe Public, and take off the facade that things hit home.

Anyway, I think the video is also a reminder that, beyond the UK’s grubby Phone-hacking scandal with all its accusations of back-handings and worse, mainstream media can and should be a vital part of any community, and provide a valued, valuable service.

In New Zealand it was it writ on a grand scale, with terrible destruction and tragic loss of life, but the journalists in Christchurch played a fundamental role in helping people understand what happened to their community, by sharing information and stories (some were their own, of course).  
I admire them hugely.

* The video has been edited for legal reasons and I disabled embedding after some thought as it’s not mine to share.

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