Press Enterprise and Openness?

I and others have been critical about the lack of open and available news in and around Bloomsburg, PA over the last several weeks. It has been widely documented that the Press Enterprise offered two or three days of free digital distribution following the flood — primarily because they couldn’t deliver the physical paper to residents in flooded areas. After those first three days, the Press went back to posting daily stories behind a paywall.

Since the flood that has so devastated Bloomsburg, PA there have been several Facebook pages started to try and organize help and information for the people in town — many of whom have lost everything. Demands to the Press Enterprise to open their flood related information has been met with silence from them. Amazingly there have been so many people who have defended the approach by the Press, saying it is a business and we can’t expect them to give away the paper. That has been a faulty and mismatched argument from the beginning as I haven’t seen anyone demanding that all of the Press be opened, instead the focus has been on flood related images and news.

I haven’t been shy about sharing the numbers of views I’ve received for the 373 photos I posted openly to Flickr in the days following the flood. As a matter of fact, in a presentation I gave at the PA Newspaper Association’s Advertising Conference last week I shared that these photos were viewed 153,650 times from 9/11/2011 through 9/28/2011. What that tells me is that there is a market of need that wasn’t being filled by traditional channels.

Today, my wife shared with me a new page that appears in google search results for an open archive of 30 pictures from the Press Enterprise. The photos are shared in a gallery outside the paywall and are openly available to view and download. Like we have hoped from the beginning, the photos are excellent in that they are taken in the moment by newspaper professionals. Is the Press Enterprise listening to the pleas and (in my opinion) appropriately toned criticism? Perhaps, but either way we now have access to at least 30 images linked from the official newspaper site of the greater Bloomsburg area. I call that progress by any measure.

Catawissa, PA

I am really curious about what has happened in the towns around Bloomsburg, PA. Catawissa, PA comes to mind as a place that had to have been hit so hard and yet I’ve not heard or seen a thing. It simply blows my mind that the only real reason I know about what has happened in Bloomsburg is because I’ve visited there. Now that I have a subscription to The Press Enterprise, you know the newspaper whose slogan is, “Serving Bloomsburg, Berwick, and Danville, PA,” I can easily keep up to date with those areas.

So now I begin to wonder who is serving a town as small as Catawissa, PA? And what about Orangeville, Benton, and Millville, PA? These are all towns with homes, churches, schools, businesses, and people. These are all towns I rode my bike to when I was growing up. Who is responsible for exposing their stories? Who is collecting them?

These are questions we should all be asking.


I woke this morning to a front page headline in the Press Enterprise titled, Don’t abandon us, Bloom. It is a piece focusing attention on the town’s decision to stop free trash pickup and the overall impact on the residents in town. When I first saw the headline I thought maybe I was reading an editorial, but the story signifies something deeper than that. To me it is another example of the type of narrative that is built to construct a wedge issue.

“We ripped it out so it wouldn’t grow mold,” Mr. Taylor said. “Now it’s getting moldy out there.” Dawn Taylor said no one on their block had a good idea when debris pickup would end. They heard through word of mouth about the Wednesday cutoff. “And a panic kind of set in,” she said. “Like, ‘What comes after that?'” The Taylors have flood insurance on their house, but not its contents. That means they’ll be paying to replace their washer, dryer, stove and all the other appliances lost when just under 3 feet of muddy water rushed through their first floor. “We don’t want to take advantage of the system,” Taylor said. But they don’t have much money to spare for a Dumpster rental.

In addition to the stories of my friends’ needs, what I really wanted to see in the piece were some real details about what FEMA would and wouldn’t do, but we’ve all seen in the last few days what has gone on with that argument in DC. We aren’t at a place where we should be ready to blame our local government when these issues are so much more complex than a binary decision. All this is new territory to us locally, but we have to remember that regardless of the rhetoric we’ve historically entered into a social contract of sorts — local communities can count on the Federal Government to help us not fail when disasters happen. And a disaster has happened — locally. With that in mind, I think that in the wake of the flood we remember what real abandonment looks like to the people in and around Bloomsburg. It looks like this:

That is the image of total loss, of the need to abandon, and the need to be emotional. Keri and her family lost their house today. It is so easy to say she’ll get relief, but I hope we can lean on some sort of empathy and feel for them in ways we aren’t usually asked to. Each day this is happening in Bloomsburg. Each day this isn’t being shared. Why? Here is another story from another Bloomsburg resident that has lost everything … someone I can guarantee you won’t see in the paper or on the nightly news. This is the new reality and this is yet another story that wouldn’t otherwise get told. These are stories of real abandonment. This is a Flood of Silence.

Bloomsburg, PA Ends Free Public Trash Collection

In the aftermath of the most devastating flood in the history of Bloomsburg, PA I personally witnessed some extraordinary work by the community to help with clean up. Students from both Bloomsburg University and Bloomsburg High School showed up at dozens of homes to scoop the mud out, strip walls, carry destroyed items to the curb, and so much more. I witnessed people coming from higher ground in unaffected areas to do the same for people they’ve never met. And all that help ended up on the curb.

DSC 2703

This morning I read in the Press Enterprise that the town has decided to stop collecting and disposing of the trash as a common good. I have mixed feelings about this as there is still so much to do, but I can understand the decision. Doing this costs money and now people seem to be taking advantage of the situation by placing an excessive amount of construction items in their curb-side piles. From the Press Enterprise article, Free flood pickups end, by Leon Bogdan,

“We wanted to help through the worst of it and get personal possessions that were ruined in the flood taken away quickly. But we started getting construction material now,” Mayor Knorr added. “The last thing we want to do is make it harder for people, but we had to decide where that line is to stop providing public Dumpsters. We’re still hopeful of getting some FEMA money. But if we find this is an undue hardship, we’ll evaluate it and go from there,” he said.

I was amazed at the work they did helping everyone take care of the trash — and remember, this flood happened on September 9, 2011 so the town has been at this for two weeks. If you could have seen the constant dumping of trash on the old tennis courts in the Bloomsburg Town Park you’d have a better idea of what the scale of all this is about.

DSC 2660

That photo above is from the Sunday following the flood while the image below is ten days later.

Trash Piles

I found the article from the PE’s teaser post to go buy today’s paper on Facebook this morning. Since I am a paid subscriber, I downloaded the PDF of today’s paper to read the article. Relatively fair reporting, but what I find amazing are the number of negative comments amassing on the Facebook page demanding the Town continue to do this for free. One in particular struck a chord with me and the parallels to the imperative to provide free and open access to flood news that I’ve seen …

God Forbid someone NOT profit from this flooding…..guess it was just a matter of time but let me tell you there are people out there who didn’t work their jobs for almost 2 weeks due to clean up do you really think they have the money the trash haulers want for bulk pick up or better yet for dumpster use. These townships should be ashamed.

I’m not sure the town needs to continue to do this for free, but they provided a very costly service for free for two weeks. The PE closed down as soon as 12th street and the west end of town was suitable for standard delivery. Those of us who criticized the Press in the days following the flood for not providing free access to critical information got lambasted on the PE Facebook page for wanting a free hand out. People said that the Press was a business and news cost money to produce. In fact a PE representative actually told me the same thing on a Facebook posting. Last I checked running a town is a business as well — with a real balance sheet that needs to be considered … I guess I just don’t understand the context well enough.

What I appreciated most was an incredibly measured comment in the article by an old friend from our days at Bloomsburg High School,

Keri Gaito, whose home in the 900 block of West Main has foundation damage and had 4 feet of water on its first floor, was grateful for the town’s help in hauling away four or five large loads of flood debris. “They did a real nice job. Took it out quickly. It was a big help. I can understand the town can’t keep doing it forever,” she said.

Providing critical services in the wake of a disaster like the Bloomsburg Flood is a critical link to restoring order to a devastated community. In my mind hauling trash for free, scooping mud because a neighbor needs it, or providing open access to critical pieces of news about the event are all part of a larger value chain leading towards recovery.

Talking About the Bloomsburg, PA Flood on DTLT Today

Last week I was lucky enough to catch the University of Mary Washington’s DTLT crew getting set to broadcast episode 40 of their daily web show. I saw in a tweet that they were planning to talk about the stuff I had been doing with social media around the Bloomsburg, PA flood and the apparent lack of news converge. I happened to be home, working in my home office when I replied to the tweet and asked if I could be a part of it. We got hooked up with Skype and the results are below.

I really can’t thank these guys enough for not only having me on, but for taking the time to really think about the things that are happening in Bloomsburg. The fact that they only know about this via the social web is astonishing to me and continues to point towards a need for a more open local news approach.

Bloomsburg: One Week Later

I have so much to say about what I continue to see in Bloomsburg, PA but I will leave that for tomorrow after I’ve had time to properly reflect. For now I wanted to share another set of photos I took while making a quick trip into to town to take supplies. I wish I could say it looks remarkably better, but I cannot. Progress has been made, but it is still a very difficult sight. I talked to several residents, especially in the west end of town, and people are very tired and weary of the thought of dealing with another flood like this. Still so much kindness everywhere I looked — people helping each other in terribly filthy and dangerous conditions. I wish I could do more. I did do a few personal item drops and delivered a huge haul of cleaning supplies my wife, Kristin collected from friends in State College. From what I am hearing, AGAPE will put them to great use … the help they are providing (along with so many others) is inspiring. Please consider giving more to our town if you can — it is in need. And if you can’t do that, please take a look at the pictures and help us spread the word of what is happening. My last set of photos had nearly 110,000 views last week … I can’t even tell you how many people have said to me that they wouldn’t have know what was happening in town without those photos and the Facebook group that has been created. Have a look …

Bloomsburg Flood Destroys More than 1,000 Homes

I am still waiting to see this news somewhere other than Facebook or behind the paywall at the Press Enterprise. Since I haven’t, I think it is important to help get some of the facts being reported to the open web. The American Red Cross is now reporting that the flood destroyed more than 1,000 homes and did damage to another 2,300 in Columbia County alone. According to Peter Kendron, Press Enterprise writer, in an article published on September 16, 2001, “If those numbers hold up, it means more than 10 percent of the county’s 29,500 households saw some sort of flooding last week.”

What is crazy to me is that if this happened in a larger area and 10 percent of the homes were flooded, in say Philadelphia, don’t you think it would be making news? Remember, percentages are percentages. In my mind part of the reason for this lack of broad awareness lies on what D’Arcy Norman called a “cone of silence” in a post he made this week. My friend and colleague, Ellysa Cahoy, built on that concept when she wrote an excellent post yesterday bringing to light the complexities associated with access to local newspapers. The cone of silence doesn’t seem real to people at the local level because they are both living in the midst of the disaster and there is near pervasive access to the local paper via the little blue boxes selling the physical paper on every corner.

This poses two immediate problems. The first is that news doesn’t move across the open web in a way that stories can be picked up and shared in ways that builds awareness to the intensity of the damage — remember that 10 percent of the homes were flooded. When local news doesn’t get picked up and shared it doesn’t provide strong returns via google and other search engines so non-local news agencies can’t report on the tragedy as widely as they should. When that happens everyone loses — relief organizations are slower to respond, national media is under represented, and philanthropic organizations never get involved. The other issue is one that Ellysa identifies in her post — access to long-term historical information is lost. That means the history of our town is limited to first hand reports and memories by citizens. The problem dramatically impacts historians, scholars, and future generations … according to Ellysa who is a Library Research faculty member at The Pennsylvania State Unviersity,

What this tells me is that a researcher studying the recent Bloomsburg flood (and wanting access to local news coverage) would have to travel to Bloomsburg to access the articles. It’s a similar story for any other news events occurring in Bloomsburg, including the 1972 flood. We can’t depend on local news institutions to look any farther than their print subscription proceeds … They’ve already proven that they are myopic and doomed to eventual obsolescence. It’s just a matter of time for that.

Let me remind everyone that we aren’t talking about free access to today’s news. Reporting news costs money and if local papers want to sell that news on a daily basis, they should. We are talking about searchable, open, linkable archives of yesterday and back that are openly accessible online. For the sake of broad awareness and access to historical archives this should be happening. I pulled some more facts from the Press Enterprise article that I’d like to share from the Red Cross reporting. I certainly hope the Press allows me to share this more broadly:

  • 976 single-family homes destroyed, along with 190 apartments
  • 801 homes, including 676 single-family homes, 10 mobile homes and 115 apartments had major damage, which means they will not be habitable until they are repaired
  • About 301 single-family homes had minor damage. Those homes are habitable, but need repair. They might have minor roof or structural damage, broken windows, some roofing or siding missing and up to 3 feet of water in the home.
  • 1,012 single-family homes and 20 apartments were affected. Such homes have nuisance damage but are habitable without repair. Examples of damage to affected homes include shingles or siding missing, debris around the home, 6 inches to 1 foot of water in the home, and mobile home skirting damaged or missing.

West Main Street

I am a subscriber to the Online Edition of the Press Enterprise, and you can become one for $2.50 a week. If you would like to view or republish an archive of photos showing the damage from the flood, you can access my growing set of associated photos at Flickr.

They’ve Had Enough

I know my friends in Bloomsburg, PA aren’t going to give up. What I really hope is that the town finds ways to come together to fix what the root cause of the problem is — there just may not be a way to do that. In a lot of ways even this video can’t tell the story of what is happening in Bloomsburg, but at the moment it is one of the few I have seen.

This morning, while I was in an active online debate with folks about the need for open access to Bloomsburg Flood news at the Press Enterprise, I got an email from a producer at AccuWeather asking if she could use some of the Creative Commons marked photos I had posted from last weekend. These are the same photos that have gotten over 75,000 views in the last few days. While the Press has decided to close access, AccuWeather decided that they would seek assets from wherever they could on the open web — and all they had to do was ask and give attribution.

Up until today I hadn’t seen a professionally produced piece focusing on the stories of the people in Bloomsburg. And this one is built on the back of open content. This is why we need to find a way to make the news of this event open — so others with a much wider audience than any of ours individually can share them. Sure, I love they used my pictures … but what I am most happy about is that they are using them to expose what has happened and have now built an open resource for someone else to use in the future to learn about these events. That is why open needs to win and this is why I’ve had enough of closed news ecosystems.