When the possibility of a tropical cyclone forming hit the Townsville Bulletin newsroom on March 21, the team started planning.
Led by the masthead’s editor, Ben English, the team started to put together early plans for workflow and staff management.
“One advantage of an event like this is you have time on your side,” he said. “We first knew of the possibility of the cyclone last Tuesday and we were watching the low form off Papua New Guinea. It was then that we started to put together our early thoughts on how we might approach this from a workflow and staff management standpoint.
“There was a lot of moving parts,” he said. “A lot of planning in terms of what roads, how are they going to get there in terms of transportation? Do they have enough supplies? Have they got enough in terms of power? Phones. Staff connections. There was a whole host of logistical things going on in the background.”
Tropical Cyclone Debbie formed on March 25 before making landfall as a category 4 cyclone on March 28, near Airlie Beach. With winds in excess of 240km/h and dumping more than 200mm of rain along the north Queensland coast, Cyclone Debbie was the most intense of the season so far.
The Bulletin has 40 staff, with nine general reporters. Split into teams, reporters and photographers travelled along the coast to various cities that were likely targets.
One team led by journalist Domanii Cameron was sent to Bowen, while John Anderson led the team in Airlie. The pair worked independently and filled to the Townsville newsroom.
The Bulletin team was aided by neighbouring regional mastheads the Burdekin Advocate and Bowen Independent. The Courier Mail, the Brisbane-based morning daily, had its own reporters in the affected areas, but the Townsville Bulletin’s material was available to boost its coverage.
Kelsie Iorio, a reporter from the Advocate, was on her second day as a journalist when she was assigned to help cover the cyclone.
After power was lost the Bulletin journalists were able to continue to file stories by phone and laptop because they were equipped with a portable generator – one of the results of the forward planning sessions.
“As this was an emergency, people depend on us as a regional newspaper for vital information,” Mr English said. “We decided we would be digital first about everything, we weren’t going to hold back, and in fact that did remarkably well.
“Social media was an important feature of the Bulletin’s strategy to get the most recent news to its readers, which included regular tweets, posts and videos.”
Mr English said the response from readers was overwhelming. “We made a number of key decisions early and one was to be very active on Facebook and Twitter and we were essentially sharing with our social media audience as rapidly and richly as possible.
“If your audience is engaged, they have a really strong sense of ownership of the paper,” he said.
The most popular story shared through social media was a photo of Debbie, the Cockatoo. Named after the cyclone, the drenched and exhausted bird was photographed, then rescued by staff photographer Alix Sweeney. The photo received more than 500 000 impressions and the paper’s Facebook page gained more than 1000 likes.
While the printing and distribution of the Bulletin was largely unaffected, the Bowen Advocate was unable to meet its regular schedule. Sending copy to Townsville, the Bulletin printed and bundled the Advocate’s next edition, but road and rail closures stopped its distribution. It is hoped to fly the paper in this afternoon.
Producing print in the eye of the Storm
The Whitsunday Times, a regional paper in the heart of Airlie, was at ground zero of Cyclone Debbie.
Huddled around a table in the paper’s office, the team was without power and water. Quick thinking from editor Sharon Smallwood had the team running a power inverter from one of the company cars into the editorial room, allowing the team to charge laptops and phones.
As the eye of the storm passed, Smallwood and journalist Peter Carruthers were able to leave the office to gather stories and take photos and video.
“In the eye of cyclone we did manage to get photos. I stress I don’t recommend anyone go out in the middle of a cyclone, however, the eye was over 100km wide so we had quite a time window to get out safely and back,” Smallwood said.
While the paper went to the printers on Tuesday, accessibility issues prevented it from being delivered to the Whitsundays on Wednesday.
How Debbie the cockatoo became the mascot of the cyclone
During a short reprieve in the storm, the Townsville Bulletin staff photographer Alix Sweeney ducked outside and photographed a storm-ravaged cockatoo among leaves and branches.
The photo ended up going viral, reaching thousands on Facebook and catching the attention of celebrity vet Chris Brown.
“It has almost become a mascot of this disaster and I think that it has lifted a lot of spirits. Amidst some pretty depressing images, the sight of this bird surviving has cheered a few people up, which is fantastic to see,” said editor Ben English.
After the photo was taken, Sweeney brought the bird back to her hotel room where she wrapped her in a towel and named it Debbie, in homage to the cyclone that brought them together.
Unfortunately, Debbie was found dead on Thursday morning.
Following the 2009 Black Sunday bushfires, the image of a firefighter giving Sam the koala a drink from his water bottle became a symbol of hope in the tragedy.