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How bloggers covered, uncovered the blizzard

By SHERRY BUNTING
Special for Farmshine

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. -- Once the blizzard “Atlas” retreated from the Black Hills region of South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming Oct. 6, it was a day or two before folks could get out. Then a little information and some photos began circulating on social media. By Oct. 9, a blog post at “Dew Drops,” by Dawn Wink, a writer and associate professor at Sante Fe Community College, began opening eyes.

Dawn’s parents Dean and Joan Wink operate Wink Cattle Company near Howes, South Dakota. Her first post entitled “The blizzard that never was, and its aftermath on cattle and ranchers” gave a window to the world into what was happening -- and what it meant to the ranchers -- offering links to regional articles. Within days, nearly 1200 comments poured in from all over the world.

“Ranchers and farmers using social media were key in getting the ranchers’ story out to the world,” says New York dairywoman Lorraine Lewandrowski of the unofficial “New York Farmers and Friends” agvocacy group.

Some of the blogposts and regional articles were attracting questions. People wondered why they were not seeing any of this on the news. It seems the divide between rural plains and beltway media is more than geographic. There is a cultural divide that keeps the mainstream media from understanding the import of this story.

“Because Dawn Wink’s blog post was on the dairy women pages, her SOS to the world alerted me, and others, to the magnitude of the story,” Lewandrowski reflects. Of course, she went into immediate action using the 10,000-plus contacts she’s made on Twitter and tapping people who could advance the story. One such person was Tim Marema, editor of Daily Yonder, a national rural policy site that the mainstream media sometimes gathers info from.

“Tim had the story out that day on his national rural site,” Lewandrowski relates. “We didn't really know who the rancher organizations were in South Dakota; so many of us just started working on this on our own, from many ends of the country simultaneously. I tried to think of who I could contact. Other farmers in social media were doing the same.”

Lake Mills, Wisconsin dairywoman Carrie Chestnut Mess – also known as “Dairy Carrie” – posted to her blog a story entitled “Pain you can’t even imagine” on October 11. Ryan Goodman, of Tennessee, also posted information to his Agriculture Proud blog, and “Truth in Agriculture” picked it up as well.

“Farmers of all types were tweeting Dawn Wink’s blog to country western stars, like Blake Shelton; talk show hosts like Ellen Degeneres; major urban papers; CNN; anybody they could think of,” Lewandrowski relates. “I saw that pattern emerge spontaneously like a farmer social movement on twitter. For my part, I emailed Dawn’s blog to the writers I met from Modern Farmer during the “Just Food” conference in New York City this past spring. Jesse Hirsch was in a conference in Kansas City, he took one look it and got on the phone to hire Samuel Brasch, a free-lancer in Colorado to get on the story immediately.”

Lewandrowski also sent the blogpost to Nathanial Johnson, writer for Grist, who also advanced the story. She says Ryan Goodman’s post from Tennessee led to the story finally making it to CNN because of his “Eatocracy” connection. “And Dairy Carrie’s post was picked up by The Guardian in the United Kingdom, leading to global coverage.

Dawn’s original post was sent to international friends via a twitter group called Farmers on Film. “The sheep farmers in Wales who had been through a major blizzard in May of 2013 took the story from there to BBC reporters, and the Australian farmers did the same,” Lewandrowski reports, adding that she put the post into the mailboxes of some of the top food movement leaders, and none responded.

“More mid-level grassroots people that we are getting to now are appalled that no one responded among the celebrities we contacted,” said Lewandrowski who was asked to do a guest piece on this for a Food Tech Connect newsletter. Another example is Heritage Radio running the story as a banner two minute interview at the top of their site at www.heritageradionetwork.com

Prior to the New York Times running a story Tuesday, Oct. 15, Lewandrowski contacted Wendell Berry at his home in Kentucky to ask why top level people are ignoring the ranchers. “He is receiving an award in Manhattan today (Oct. 16) and promised to tell media folks he meets there about this epic blizzard and its impact on the ranchers.”

In this way, it has ended up that the efforts of average people blogging, tweeting, and facebooking through social media actually covered this story for the first 10 days.

“The failure to cover this dire situation should be a lesson to us all,” adds Lewandrowski. “We need to cultivate and share media contacts and send our professional organization representatives into New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and not so much the county fairs and regional events… We also need to explore the linkages between national and regional media. Why did this story keep circulating in South Dakota papers and the Billings Gazette, not making a jump in a big way into national media for so long.

“It felt like we were operating in parallel universes last week.”