Our recent coverage of Fix50 – the gigantic state effort to reconstruct portions of Highway 50 near downtown – may show more than most stories how journalism has changed in a digital world.
Our mission is the same – provide information to help you navigate your life. But the static maps and “help boxes” that we publish in print morph online with the help of smart technology into real-time, essential information.
For the first time we’ve had maps that show exactly where traffic is piling up as it happens. We’ve had traffic cams that let you take a peek at the freeway. We’ve offered text alerts for immediate information (even as we cautioned against reading them while driving).
The bottom line? All this information is packaged so the 250,000 of you who use Highway 50 daily can easily and quickly figure out how to drive around any construction delays before you leave your garage.
“I’ve learned as a transportation writer that people really care about their commute and really hate negative surprises out there,” said reporter Tony Bizjak, who is a rarity among local journalists: an expert in transportation issues. “We’ve been sounding the alarm that these closures would be intrusive, and we’ve been trying to empower drivers by giving them lots of information about what they can do to make sure they can get where they want to go.”
Last week we entered stage two of this gigantic construction effort. We expect Highway 50 to be torn up in one way or another for the duration. Although enough people have changed commutes to keep traffic jams to a minimum so far, there’s no guarantee that will last. We plan to continue to prioritize this story until the project is finished in late June, with these highlights:• A “current traffic” map that allows you to plot your commute path and check real-time traffic speeds along the route.
• Traffic cameras from different locations so you can see what’s happening on the freeway before you start driving.
• An ongoing question-and-answer feature in which you can pose questions about the project, to be answered by Bee reporters and published. The feature is available online, with questions that affect most readers also published in print. To date we’ve received about 75 questions.
• A Fix50 Twitter feed that connects you to ongoing social media comments about the commute.
• Links to just about anything you need to plan your commute, from the official Fix50.com site to light-rail information, a bike map and resources, Yolobus and much more.
In addition to the useful detail, Bizjak has provided tough reporting. About a month before the California Department of Transportation started construction, Bizjak reported that city leaders, along with fire and ambulance officials, were worried that the Caltrans plan would wreak havoc with the speed of fire and ambulance vehicles. The problem, they said, was that Caltrans was not sharing information they needed to plan for trouble.
That story, published on Page A1 in print as well as in Top Stories at Sacbee.com, raised the question: Is Sacramento on its way to a “carmageddon”? The next week Caltrans said it would change its plan to have a little less impact, cutting back on its lane and ramp closures.
Bizjak was joined by a broad team of reporters, editors, photographers, graphic artists and others in The Bee’s newsroom as construction launched. They tweeted, broke news, did a “live chat” online that included reader participation, sent out news alerts and published videos. Linda Gonzales, deputy director of digital, ensured that everything was packaged online into a one-stop guide at www.sacbee.com/fix50.
We sent photographer Randy Pench up in a helicopter on the first day to provide a full visual of the work.
Readers responded. On the first day of the shutdown, four of the 10 top-read stories at Sacbee.com were about Fix50, and more than 5 percent of our reader traffic overall.
Our news and information, photography and graphics have been published in print as well. Last Sunday we included a special pullout from the A section that mapped out the next three phases of construction, though the starting dates of each stage already are changing – for the better. Contractor Myers and Sons is beating its own schedule.
“You could argue we’re overreacting,” Bizjak said. “There haven’t been any doomsday traffic backups since the 2-mile-long jam on Day One.
“But that may be for the best reason – because enough drivers were forewarned by Caltrans and the news media, and enough of them made trip changes,” he said. “If it turns out we did overreact, though, I won’t feel guilty. I’d rather err on that side.”