Newspapers failed to cover rare tornado in local community

Davis Tornado
(Photo: Shasta Fields via CNN)

Tornadoes are rare in California — fewer than a dozen touch down in any given year — so it came as quite a surprise to residents of the college town of Davis when one formed over the weekend.

If you live in Davis, and you heard about it, it might have something to do with the intense media coverage of the rare weather phenomenon: Videos of the dust twister went viral within just a few hours of being posted to Twitter and Facebook. Every local television station in the Sacramento market led their newscast with the wild weather. By the end of the weekend, most TV stations throughout California aired a report of the tornado. Even CNN picked up the story.

But if you relied solely on the local newspaper to keep you informed of the severe weather, you’re forgiven if you had no idea that the town was at the center of some strange and rare whether phenomenon over the weekend.

Neither the Davis Enterprise or the Woodland Daily Democrat — both newspapers of record in California’s Yolo County — notified subscribers or social media followers that a tornado warning had been activated by the National Weather Service early Saturday evening. Neither newspaper told subscribers or followers that a tornado and multiple “gust-nadoes” had touched down throughout the unincorporated area between Davis and Woodland. As of Monday morning, the Daily Democrat had a passing mention to a tornado in Davis in a story that largely covered severe weather in Woodland; the Davis Enterprise still had nothing online about the weather situation in the town where it operates.

There was a dire need for local coverage of this local event: Social media users took to Twitter and Reddit questioning the legitimacy of a tornado weather alert sent to their phones — something that could have easily been debunked with a single tweet or Facebook post by an established local news outlet. The National Weather Service’s Sacramento office has meteorologists staffed around-the-clock — even on holidays — for local news reporters to call with questions about weather and related alerts. It isn’t clear if anyone at the newspapers did. Social media users uploaded numerous photos and videos of the tornado and gust-nadoes to Twitter and Facebook. The TV stations took every opportunity to repurpose that media for their local newscasts; the newspapers have yet to show their audience what the tornado looked like.

Local newspapers have one primary job: To publish local news. It isn’t clear why both local newspapers failed to deliver timely and accurate reports about a severe weather event — clearly an emergency situation — and why the primary newspaper in town still has no mention of it anywhere online. Sebastian Oñate, a lead editor at the Davis Enterprise, has not yet returned an email seeking comment (disclosure: I worked for McNaughton Newspapers from mid-2018 to early 2019; McNaughton owns the Davis Enterprise, and my work occasionally appeared in that newspaper).

The Davis Enterprise, like other small town newspapers, has a skeleton staff working on the weekend. Some newspapers in the area have no staff working at all, or staff assigned other beats, like weekend sports. But any of these staff could look out the window — or go on Twitter and Facebook — and see the story unfolding before their eyes.

Editors at other newspapers may attempt to defend the Enterprise and others by saying what happened over the weekend is a natural consequence of the shifting newspaper industry — one where ad revenue is down, subscribers are fleeing and local investment in hyperlocal news institutions is waning. Well, yeah, if you’re a news consumer and you get faster updates from your friends on social media, you’re probably going to question why the newspaper is worth paying for.

Today’s news industry is tougher than ever: Whereas reporters were once tasked with figuring out how to meet deadlines for print, now they’re expected to be jacks of all trades — written works, photos, video and social media interaction. That isn’t limited to newspapers: radio and TV staffers are also struggling with the juggling responsibilities that having a good digital footprint requires. It is an uphill battle for all journalists at a time when anyone with a smartphone and a Twitter account can be an on-the-scene reporter.

To combat this, newspapers often harness their coverage of local emergencies as proof of performance that they are invested in their communities — and often this promotion comes with a request that if local audiences want this to continue, they subscribe. Unfortunately, for the Davis Enterprise, the only thing they have from this weekend to show is that a rare tornado emergency isn’t worth covering if their staff has the day off.