When news breaks: Choppers are no match for Periscope

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Jim MacMillan

Independent Journalist at jimmacmillan.com
I am a solutions-oriented independent multimedia journalist, based in Philadelphia.
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Above: @JaleelKing was streaming live on Periscope from the high-rise fire Wednesday in Philadelphia.

I had my windows open to the beautiful breezes in Center City Philadelphia Wednesday night when I heard what struck me as an unusually long run from a fire truck siren, as if it was traveling further than usual.

Being an old newsy, I fired up the 5-0 Radio Pro radio scanner app on my iPhone, discovered that the Philadelphia Fire Department was responding to a major incident and tweeted what I heard:

(I later read that “a rooftop fire sent smoke billowing throughout the building” which housed apartments at 640 North Broad Street, according to phillymag.com.)

Some journalists quarrel with the idea of tweeting scanner reports but — after decades in news photography — I’ve got the knowledge and experience to figure some things out here in Philadelphia. (I also like the “Batavian’s basic rules for scanner reporting” as a place to start.)

Next, I was about to check Twitter for witnesses on the scene when my phone whistled an alert from the Periscope app, indicating that local photographer Jaleel King had gone live with a stream labeled: “Fire at 640 N Broad St.” (That’s where I grabbed the image at the top of this post.)

And there I was at my kitchen table, watching a live report on my phone, perhaps one minute after wondering about the siren outside my window.

Opening my laptop to search for more information with Tweetdeck, I found another scanner reporter and witnesses on the scene, including one resident who posted a little video and this photo:

Exciting night here. Seems like half of the Philly Fire Department is here.

A photo posted by Jake Steinerman (@jasteinerman) on

About 10 minutes after I tweeted and shared King’s Periscope stream, I saw the first social media report from a local newsroom, when @6ABC posted a tweet with this aerial view:

Action News had a full report with dramatic video and interviews with evacuees by the time they went live for the 11 p.m. news show.

But when news breaks, I am now finding live reports from people the scene appearing much faster than traditional newsrooms can match — and I have to wonder if sending a helicopter makes much sense anymore.

Wouldn’t it be a better public service for journalists to find, authenticate, contextualize and re-share what’s being reported before they can possibly arrive? Or else why should we look to them first?

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