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updated: 7/14/2011 10:03 AM

Disaster coverage focuses on usefulness

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If a heat wave during the past week caused the deaths of 32 county residents, where do you think the story should run in the local newspaper? In the Cook County Herald -- precursor to the Daily Herald -- of July 4, 1913, it was near the bottom of an inside page, told in three sentences.

That was below the story of the Champaign store clerk whose life was saved by the plug of tobacco in his shirt pocket that blocked an assailant's knife blade. It was below the story of the 22 guests at a Sandusky, Ohio, wedding, "several of whom nearly died" when they were "poisoned" by bad chicken salad -- "the lawn where the dinner was served being covered with convulsed, writhing victims." Even below the story about the death in New York City of a 150-year-old Chinese physician whose health had been described as "excellent" and who resented "exaggerated" stories about his age.

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Front page news that week -- in addition to ads for cars, hay, tools and banks -- was relegated to a call for the creation of a Commercial Club for the bustling 2,500-population town of Arlington Heights, though another heat mention did acknowledge that, "If some genius can discover a method to store up the surplus heat of summer and release it when it is most needed in winter, his fortune is made. He can then form a corporation greater than all the trusts on earth."

It appears that a mere killer heat wave in a Chicago summer just was not such big news a century or so ago. Compare that with the Daily Herald's coverage of this week's combined heat wave and wind storm that knocked out electric power to hundreds of thousands of suburban homes.

Oh, sure, we might still include creative fantasies about storing up summer's heat like forage for winter, but we're much more interested now in reflecting the serious, local magnitude of the event. In playing the story prominently on the front page. In providing ideas to help you stay safe and comfortable. In showing pictures and describing scenes of suburban residents coping with downed trees, decaying food and days without electrical power (admittedly not much of a concern on July 4, 1913, when a front page question asked "When will Arlington Heights get electric streetlights (and) use modern electric power to pump water?")

In helping you find more pictures, slide shows and information somewhere that few people could have imagined in 1913 -- online.

Indeed, I owe most of this reflection to Richard Battin, an online editor, who wondered how local residents dealt with such troubles a hundred years ago and dug up the 1913 edition (in online archives, of course). I didn't know what to expect -- stories about local swimmin' holes perhaps? The losses to crops and local businesses? How to dress comfortably while displaying the least amount of skin? But there's none of that. Instead, you find evidence not just of how much things have changed in society -- electricity, online, tobacco plugs and all that -- but of how much more vital today's local news source is in helping individuals, businesses and communities deal with the complexities and vagaries of sudden and profound disruption. And, while an official number of deaths no doubt will eventually become part of the report on the current event, our coverage is far from limited to a simple body count.

In short, news judgment, like technology and culture, changes over time. It's worth noting that today's emphasis goes beyond just what's interesting and concentrates on what's useful and what's local.

• Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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