College Media Hall of Fame, Class of 2011: Victor Luckerson & The Crimson White

The College Media Hall of Fame is a digital enshrinement of individuals, news outlets, and organizations who have made a lasting impact on collegemediatopia or greatly contributed to it over the past year.  Much like last year’s inaugural batch (known as the CMM 10), this year’s inductees include standout student journalists, innovative student media entrepreneurs, and impassioned advocates of campus press 2.0.  With a hat tip to the annual Time 100, many of the posts announcing each honoree include a few words of adoration penned by a close friend or colleague. Next up…

Victor Luckerson & The Crimson White

University of Alabama’s student newspaper and its editor-in-chief

On a weekday afternoon in late April 2011, Crimson White editor-in-chief Victor Luckerson heard the tornado sirens.  He left the University of Alabama student newspaper’s newsroom near Bryant-Denny Stadium and went to the office building’s basement.  A few minutes later, he watched on local TV news as parts of Tuscaloosa were leveled by an historic torrent of wind and rain.  And then he got to work.

In the week following the storm, Luckerson led the Crimson White staff at UA on a publishing spree that included more than 100 articles and about 30 multimedia features from numerous bases of operation, including a reporter’s grandmother’s house.

Among their prodigious output, the team of roughly 30 put together a print edition with no advertisements a week after the storm that featured profiles about affected communities– and personally delivered copies to locations around the city.  The amount of the paper’s Twitter followers doubled.  Their weekly website hits ratcheted up from 6,000 to 450,000.  MSNBC, Dateline, and NBC Nightly News featured their photos.  And they interviewed Brian Williams and Charlie Sheen for special video reports.

For their extraordinary dedication, digital journalism prowess, and hyperlocal intensity on storm coverage in the immediate and extended aftermath, I am honored to name Luckerson and the rest of the Crimson White staff to the College Media Hall of Fame.

After overseeing the paper’s storm coverage, Luckerson left for New York City, completing an internship with Sports Illustrated.

In the Q&A below, Luckerson discusses the challenges of reporting upon such a massive disaster and offers advice for student journalists charged with covering the aftermath of a similar event.

What was your experience with the tornado and its immediate aftermath?

Immediately after the storm, we had no idea of the scope of the damage.  We sent a couple of people to check around campus to assess damage and we began hearing reports that 15th Street and McFarland Boulevard, two of the biggest streets in the city, were “gone.”  I got a call from my photo editor, whose girlfriend’s home was destroyed in the storm, and he told me there were entire communities that were wiped out.

I tried to figure out how we could publish a paper without power– that was still our number-one priority.  We planned to go to The Tuscaloosa News, where our paper is printed daily, but traffic was backed up for miles on all major roads and there were rumors that another tornado was coming in our direction.  Ultimately, lack of power curtailed our plans to publish a print edition, and we ended up going to an editor’s house outside of the city that still had power and Internet.

A photo of the tornado as it tore past the UA campus, courtesy of Mark Mayfield, Crimson White editorial adviser. In his words, “The UA Office of Student Media is located in the building in the lower center of the photo, near Bryant-Denny Stadium and between those two columns in the foreground. This photo was taken by former UA Student Government Association President James Fowler.”

It was a scary night.  The roads were black.  There were ambulance and police sirens constantly.  Phone lines were mostly jammed, and there was no way to know if all your friends were safe.  Twitter and Facebook were the only viable lines of communication.  Logistically, it was a big challenge to accomplish anything because it was difficult for us to stay in contact and the city was in a chaotic state.  We wrote a few stories that first night– a story from students on the scene who’d lost their homes, a story about how the recreation center had been transformed into a shelter for displaced students, and a story about impending gas and food shortages in the city.

I have two main memories from the day of the storm.  First, maybe an hour after the tornado, one of my editors came up to me crying and told me that her house was gone.  She asked me if she needed to do anything else for the paper. Secondly, when we were in the journalism building at one point, one of the journalism professors came up to me in a daze with her husband and daughter– maybe 7 or 8– and told me that her house was completely destroyed.  She asked me what to do.  Her daughter was crying.  I didn’t know what to tell her.

What were the challenges of reporting upon such a massive event?

For me personally, it was difficult to handle the logistical and emotional pressures at the same time.  People were looking to me for guidance and leadership, and we had all just been thrown into a scenario where no one had a clue what to do.  The day after the storm was the hardest, because the scope of the destruction and the body count just seemed to grow and grow.  And we had no newsroom, shoddy Internet, limited access to disaster zones, and were debating whether we would publish a print edition until about 5 p.m. (we didn’t).  It was difficult to take some of the very sad information I was getting from my coworkers, particularly about student deaths, and then immediately process that and convert it into a directive or a story assignment.

We had no type of disaster protocol in place, and we pretty much abandoned everything about our typical newsroom structure.  Everyone that was around essentially became a pool of reporters, photographers, and videographers.  I stayed in the newsroom along with our social media managers to direct people. When someone would finish an assignment, they would come to me for another one.  We would have a budget meeting of sorts late at night when we were done, around 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., and decide what stories we were going to pursue the next day.

Separating rumor from fact was also a big challenge.  There were many very morbid rumors circulating through social media in the days after the storm– that bodies had been found on the roof of the mall, that there were 30 bodies at the bottom of a neighborhood lake, that there was a group of rapists on sorority row– and some of them almost seemed plausible in the immediate aftermath.  It was tough to filter out the noise to find the actual facts about our community.

Courtesy of Mark Mayfield

What is your advice for students covering a disaster of this magnitude?

Everybody should be ready to do everything.  Our design editors took photos and managed an interactive Google Map that showed the storm damage and volunteer opportunities.  The managing editor, the lifestyles editor, and the news editor made mini-documentaries about different affected communities.  The opinions editor wrote news stories and took photos.  The sports editor interviewed Brian Williams and Charlie Sheen on camera.  I think the most impressive thing about my staff’s response was people’s willingness to leave the comfort zone of their job description and do whatever needed to be done to help in a moment of crisis.

Come together as a team, and be ready to work.  We spent every waking hour together for an entire week, and there was no complaining, no infighting, and no selfishness.  Everyone showed an incredible amount of maturity and character at a time when it would have been easy to pack up and go home.  We worked from 7 a.m. to midnight on the first day after the storm, from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. the next day, and from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. the next five days after that.

Utilize social media.  I think our activity on social media was probably the single most important thing we did.  Initially, we used Twitter to try to assess the scope of the damage.  Later, starting the day after the storm, we began using it to connect volunteer organizations with people that wanted to help.  So an organization would tweet us saying they needed diapers, we’d retweet them, and someone would bring them diapers.  But I think the most special thing we did was help to track down missing students.  With no phone service and such a massive school, it was difficult for people to find their friends.  People would tweet us the names of people that were missing, we’d ask if anyone had seen them [see sample tweet below] and (usually) someone would respond saying that the person was OK.  So we were able to confirm that dozens of people were alive in this way on the day after the storm.

Other Class of 2011 CMM Hall of Fame inductees:

Michael Koretzky

Frank LoMonte

Connor Toohill

5 Responses to “College Media Hall of Fame, Class of 2011: Victor Luckerson & The Crimson White”
Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Comments « College Media Hall of Fame, Class of 2011: Victor Luckerson & The Crimson White […]

  2. […] multimedia vigor during the tornado’s immediate aftermath.  For their work, I placed them in the CMM Hall of Fame– and most recently unofficially nominated the paper for a Pulitzer Prize. […]