For a brief time in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the best reporter in Alaska was a 48-year-old man with no training in journalism, no connection to any news organization, and only a slight familiarity with social media.
What Larry Pestrikoff did have was a smart phone, a sense of place, a computer and a connection to the tubes. So while people all around the Gulf of Alaska and south into British Columbia, Canada waited nervously for the arrival of a tidal wave – a potentially deadly tsunami – Pestrikoff went live on Facebook from Spruce Island near Kodiak to tell them what to expect.
Welcome to the new world of citizen journalism.
While the internet was blowing up with tsunami warnings – there is nothing the media loves more than a good disaster story – Pestrikoff was calmly watching out his window for the wave to hit the place that was supposed to be ground zero.
The magnitude 8 earthquake felt in much of coastal Alaska rocked the seabed only 175 miles southeast of Kodiak city at just after 12:30 a.m., and the Alaska Tsunami Warning Center was quick to post arrival times for potentially devastating coastal waves:
“Kodiak, 1:45 a.m.; Elfin Cove; 1:50 a.m., Seward, 1:55 a.m.; Yakutat, 2 a.m.; Sitka, 2 a.m….Valdez, 2:15 a.m.; Cordova; 2:20 a.m.; Sand Point, 2:20 a.m.; Unalaska, 2:40 a.m.; Homer, 2:50 a.m.
Luckily, all of those communities were spared, but a lot of people spent the early morning hours worrying their homes might be wiped out.
Except maybe those in Alaska among the 100,000-plus reported to be watching the Pestrikoff show. To those watching, it was pretty clear by 2 or 2:30 a.m. that the tsunami had not materialized despite a bit of mainstream media hysteria and some bogus social media reports of a Kodiak harbor gone dry and a 32-foot-tall wave approaching.
New model/old model
“News outlets reported varying degrees of accurate information, but local, on-the-ground reporting was lacking,” Seth Schrenzel, a Nevada resident who watched the Pestrikoff show, would later observe.
“Larry…a resident of Ouzinkie, AK, a small community on Spruce Island (a member of the Kodiak Archipelago), provided…Facebook users (including national and international news organizations) the most definitive on-the-ground account available. He did so in the middle of the night, from a hand-held mobile phone. His demeanor, his class, and his reporting was a great relief for thousands of concerned people.”
That was a fair summary.
“Larry did this kind deed with no preconceived notion of notoriety or fame,” Schrenzel continued. “He did it because he was there and he cared.”
Schnrezel’s comments came on a GoFundMe page Schrenzel set up to try to raise $1,000 to reward Pestrikoff for his efforts. It had raised $290 in its first 12 hours.
“In his livestream, Larry casually mentioned he is working to pay off credit card bills, and he happened to show on his livestream a tomato plant that could desperately use some rehabilitation,” Schrenzel wrote. “How does one grow tomatoes in Alaska anyway? Likely, just my ignorance showing through.
“This campaign is designed to give what was not asked. Namely, I know viewers of his livestream are appreciative of his effort to show us what was happening on the ground, and are happy to give a little as a show of gratitude.”
This is not really a new idea so much as a spin on an old idea.
The only real difference here is that instead of a news organization contracting with someone to produce a story at low pay, Shrenzel is trying to reward someone for producing a news story on their own for no pay.
It’s not a bad model for inspiring breaking news coverage. News organizations like to rave about how well they do that, but the reality is that it’s about the easiest news to cover.
All you really need to do is get boots on the ground at the scene and describe what you see.
And considering Pestrikoff, a Ouzinkie city employee, ended up covering a non-event, he did a first-rate job of describing what he saw or, more accurately, didn’t see.
“Larry answered questions in real time as viewers posted them,” MustReadAlaska’s Suzanne Downing later wrote. “He read his tide table. The tide was low. He put on his night vision goggles. He listened to the radio. He checked on his cat. He filmed a helicopter going by. The tsunami alarm in the hamlet sounded for the second time in the morning, and for what seemed an eternity.”
More than 8,700 people offered words of thanks for Pestrikoff’s coverage on his Facebook page. The comments were coming in so fast it was hard for viewers to keep up with the scroll. Up well past bedtime in Juneau, Downing noted she wasn’t the only Alaskan checking in from state’s capital.
There were a lot of people flowing to Pestrikoff’s site. He admitted Tuesday he didn’t quite know what to think in the aftermath.
“Didn’t cross my mind how many people were tuning in until a few of my relatives pointed it out,” he messaged as he was hurrying off to work on Tuesday evening. “I was just holding the camera (my phone). Narrated what was happening. People mostly saw darkness. Watching for the water to recede, but thankfully it never did.”
Pestrikoff both understates and overstates his performance. Anyone whose done talk radio knows how hard it is to sit and yack for two hours.
But Pestrikoff did have an advantage in that he never thought much about what he was doing. He was entertaining himself as much as anyone else and satisfying his own curiosity as to just what would happen. He just happened to be doing it in front of the rest of the world.
(Safety note: Pestrikoff was filming from a home 40 feet above the waterfront and was ready to flee up the hill behind his house at a moment’s notice. No one should try sightseeing tsunamis from beach level. More than 230,000 people died as the result of a December 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Some of them had foolishly gone out to investigate a suddenly dry seabed as water was sucked out to sea before the big wave came in.)
Pestrikoff said he didn’t set out to be a reporter early Tuesday morning. He sort of just wanted to help ensure people were provided some accurate information on what was actually happening on the ground in Alaska.
“The news really exaggerates some things,” he said.
“I only had Facebook to keep in touch with family originally. I don’t really follow ‘social media’ very much. Until last night, I’ve never spent more than a few minutes on Facebook.”
Despite that for a couple of hours, he was the go-to reporter for Alaska tsunami news if you really wanted to know what was happening, which was nothing.
Facebook user William Fontana eventually grabbed a screenshot of Pestrikoff’s wilted tomato plant and memed the evening’s events: “I WATCHED NOTHING HAPPEN WITH LARRY 1/23/2018.”
And in this case nothing was a good thing.