STORY OF THE WEEK: Right Place, Right Time, Right Story – Right Commitment


In the dry August heat of Central Washington, it didn’t take long for the Taylor Bridge Fire to explode. Construction crews sparked it Monday afternoon and soon a YouTube video of the monster caught our attention. That was enough to convince our EP to throw the majority of KING’s resources at it. Ultimately burning more than 23-thousand acres, the fire dominated our coverage for the rest of the week.

On Tuesday we didn’t let up and sent more than dozen people. During these major events, it’s easy to grab the low hanging fruit and stop at the first sign of smoke, or the first group of people huddled in a parking lot watching and talking about what is happening miles away. Yes, I’ll admit this kind of coverage is usually necessary. The news team has to provide a massive amount of content for our hours of daily news programming. But the smart managers free folks up and give them flexible deadlines.

This is important because it gives journalists the opportunity to shoot stories in the ACTUAL moment. Viewers are much better served when they see their neighbors experiencing the REAL disaster first hand, in the moment. This isn’t a big secret – it’s why we air so many amateur video clips of tornados, volcanoes, fires, hurricanes, etc. But in these cases, viewers don’t usually get to really know anyone.

That Tuesday, I was supposed to find the Taylor Bridge Fire’s people, in the moment.

More than an hour away from Seattle, I arrived in the area around 10:00 am. Keep in mind this area is enormous. We’re talking a half-hour drive on I-90 from one end to the other. The back roads, of course take more time to navigate. Fires actively burned throughout the region. Evacuation orders were continually issued. Hundreds of people were affected. I knew a story was out there. I just had to find it.

I have to say it WAS difficult to stay focused. I stopped and interviewed a few evacuees in a parking lot to help out with the noon show. But they were in the MIDDLE of their story, not at the beginning. So I had to convince myself to leave and keep going. I passed beautiful vistas with smoke and fire in the distance. I passed people seemingly stunned by the devastation around them. One group even looked upon a burned-out building. I passed many more stories where homes had survived. But I had missed the beginnings of all these stories. And since the other crews on my team were telling them, I had to keep my commitment.

I kept driving.

Finally after about three hours of searching, I stopped at a roadblock and told the guard I was looking for active fire and threatened homes. “Is there anything up that way?” I motioned past the closed signs. He said I could go that way if I wanted. “There is fire. But there’s not FIRE,” he emphasized. Then he pointed to my map and told me they’d just issued an evacuation order for a spot about ten miles away.

That would be my best chance.

So about 1:30 pm, I finally it. This is what I came for. I had kept my commitment, that is, until 2:15 when I thought the story was shot well enough. That’s when my mistake came – I left too soon. Even though I was on the flexible deadline, I still thought I should get it on for the 5pm show and I was 45 minutes away from the satellite truck. I should have waited until the story was completely over. And I could have. The piece didn’t end up airing until 10p because the other crews covering the fire that day also found great material. After the early shows, Gary Chittim helped me put it together.

In the end, my ordeal helped KING make a better plan for other big breaking events – give people flexible deadlines so they can go find compelling stories in the moment. We believe our viewers benefit from this policy. So for all you Storytellers, if your station doesn’t already do this, please try to convince your managers they should help put you in the right place at the right time for the right story. Then it’s up to you to keep the right commitment.