This story was written by NPR Digital's Ki-Min Sung.
On the morning of June 9, the Colorado High Park wildfire near Fort Collins was just 40 acres. By the end of the day, the fire had consumed 8,000 acres and was zero percent contained. This was one of the worst forest fires in the state’s history.
KUNC had the additional challenge of having a major transmitter in the burn area.
Hours into their coverage, KUNC’s main broadcast on 91.5FM was knocked out when power to the transmitter went out. Photos of the charred area surrounding the transmitter reveal just how much damage was done. KUNC was able to broadcast on lower-powered channels two days later, which reached most of their primary coverage area, but they were still without their strongest broadcast frequency for more than two weeks.
Listeners were able to get news about the fire through KUNC's mulitple broadcast channels. But it turns out that KUNC had another channel that people were tuning into in what turned out to be record numbers: KUNC.org
KUNC had been in the process of transforming their online news strategy for several months. It paid off. When the wildfire escalated, they were already treating their web site as its own news destination, not a supplement to radio coverage or audio archive. They did three things right:
1. Web-first Reporting
KUNC in recent months switched to filing stories online first. That meant posting stories for their online audience as the news broke and serving those users when they were looking for information in real time. They did not wait for the audio story to air first before filing a story for the web. They did not file audio transcripts written for the ear at the end of the day.
For KUNC that meant:
-Filing updates for the audience with new information
-Aggregating from a variety of sources (Twitter, Youtube, newspapers, tv)
-Curating from a variety of mediums (video, photos, audio)
-Posting stories during the online “drive time”
-Writing for the eye instead of the ear
Having this content strategy already in place prepared KUNC for an unexpected crisis. Equally important was the staff’s contributions in executing this strategy.
How did it pay off for KUNC?
Go to Google. It’s what we do when there’s breaking news and we want more information.
People in Colorado headed to Google after learning about the wildfires in their neighborhoods. They were searching for “high park fire” and “fort collins fire.” Those searches directed people straight to KUNC.org’s wildfire coverage and helped boost traffic by more than 1,500 percent unique visitors over a week.
KUNC’s digital media manager Jim Hill sent me this note:
There is tremendous value in the community realizing that as soon as the fire took us off the air we just didn’t throw our hands up in the air and stop. In many cases we doubled down and reached them from the other channels we have with them: the web, Twitter and Facebook. I thought that was an important distinction. To the audience, it isn’t digital, radio, or this, or that – for them it is all the same thing, all the same work.
2. Engaging Content KUNC’s reporting staff offered more than text and audio online. Take note of the variety of content (images, tweets, video, bullet points, liveblog, maps, updates) from a diverse array of sources. They also provided context where it helped. KUNC also organized tags (wildfires and high park fire) to help audiences navigate coverage. They added "related stories" at the bottom of the page to engage the audience further with more reporting.
This depth and breadth of coverage was dependent on the contributions of a highly engaged staff that understands the importance of online news.
3. Breaking News to Capture a New Audience
Who is this 1,500 percent?
Breaking news is a point of discovery for new online audiences.By being there when your audience is looking for information, you become a valuable news source for your community. Much of KUNC.org’s initial traffic came by search engines, but that shifted to direct and social media traffic as people became more familiar with KUNC’s reporting. Here is how their traffic broke down from Day 1 to Day 3 of the fires:
Returning visitors comprised 19 percent of visits on Day 1, but 39 percent of visits by Day 3. The increase in direct traffic, repeat visits and overall page views by Day 3 show that the online audience was returning to KUNC for the latest information and analysis.
KUNC.org continues to receive a robust online audience in the weeks after the outbreak of the fire. Traffic to KUNC.org stayed two to five times above the normal traffic that the site saw before the fire began. The fire has spread and there is more work to be done. KUNC staffers now have a bigger audience to return to as their main transmitter returns to full power this week.
KUNC participated in the NPR/Knight Foundation 11-week training program that began on April 11, 2012.