OPINION: Social media a life saver

In almost 30 years in journalism, I have seen a lot of change in how we in the media disseminate information and how our communities of readers, viewers and listeners (or today's buzzword "audiences") consume such information.

Little has been as swift and profound, in my opinion, as the impact of social media on this connection.

Indeed yesterday, as bushfires swept across large tracts of land in New South Wales and destroyed properties in Victoria, social media helped save lives.

Just as it is hard to predict what the winds of change will do during these infernos, it may be dangerous to hazard a guess at how many lives. A few? Dozens? Perhaps many more.

However, I have no doubt that the ability of social media in conjunction with established media outlets to spread emergency information to scattered communities meant residents were, in many circumstances, kept as well informed as the fire crews battling the constantly changing circumstances. And they got out of the path of annihilation.

Of course, we are better at tackling the fury of bushfires today than when as a school boy I watched the Dandenongs near my home on the outskirts of Melbourne go up on Ash Wednesday in 1983 to a terrible human cost. 

We have more sophisticated firefighting hardware and intelligence. We have better and more fire trucks. Our firefighters are expertly trained. And the tiers of government and other agencies have a far more coordinated approach.

The last point is borne out in how the Country Fire Authority in Victoria, the Tasmania Fire Service and the NSW Rural Fire Service have recently informed us through the web; how we are sent fire warnings in these ''catastrophic conditions'' on our mobile phones.

Our communities, thankfully, are also more attuned to this great Australian threat.

Matters can go askew. Computer servers can melt down and it is hard to impose total sense on everyone.

That said, social media, quicker than the wildfires, spread lifesaving messages. It was done through Twitter, Facebook, web links and hooked up with so-called traditional media outlets.

We might bemoan the invasive nature of the mobile phone, but the usefulness of the device has allowed us to connect; connect to the trivial but also connect to the details of a fire's behaviour as it changes course and lines up potential victims.

For those of us born and raised poring over the morning newspaper, this fast-paced, frenetic and at times eclectic mix of information, which is not all helpful and not all quality driven, can present as a mysterious world. Yet it is simply empowering at so many levels.

Certainly social media has brought a new dimension to a large media group like Fairfax Regional Media, with 200 papers and 140 websites, including this one.

Our newspapers continue to produce compelling and relevant content.

Say what you like about print, Fairfax Regional sells or distributes 140 million copies of its titles a year. For many people, the power of the printed word and the feel and packaging of a paper works for them.

But the past week's heatwave conditions have brought into sharp focus the complementary relevance of the digital dimension.

It has allowed us to convey official advice and to put it into context there and then.

We still rake over the coals (pardon the pun) the next day in the paper.

Today, we also inform in real time on other platforms. Be it at Cooma, Sussex Inlet, Parkes and on the fringe of Wagga Wagga in NSW. Be it at Carngham near Ballarat or outside of Warrnambool in Victoria. Be it the threat to Tasmanian communities in the days prior.

Social media is not always pretty. It can be rough, raw and wrong.

There is just no doubting its ability to connect.

* Stuart Howie is the Editorial Director of Fairfax Regional Media and a former editor of the Illawarra Mercury and Ballarat Courier, and deputy editor of The Canberra Times. Follow him on Twitter @StuartJHowie

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