Using social media to cover ‘Extreme Makeover’

I first heard about Brian Keefer at the dentist office where his aunt worked. I was there for a six-month checkup, and Mel shared Brian’s story with me.
She told me how he was president of the gymnastics club at Lock Haven. How he ran track and field and played volleyball. And she told me about the day that all changed – the day he attempted a triple front flip, more than he had ever attempted.
It was weeks after the gymnastics injury that paralyzed him from the chest down. At the time, Brian was at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia.
I remember thinking at the time how one second can change your life forever. It wasn’t the first time I had heard of a promising young athlete becoming paralyzed. When I was a sophomore in college, I covered a story about a football player who dived into the shallow end of a pool. He, too, was paralyzed from the chest down.
That story remains one of the most difficult of my career. To watch someone who made headlines on the gridiron not be able to brush his teeth was difficult. I remember drowning in an avalanche of tears after leaving Elizabethtown Hospital for Children and Youth where I had spent the day reporting the story.
But it was also one of the most rewarding stories I ever covered. I witnessed a star athlete overcome enormous obstacles, and I learned a valuable life lesson in the process. Even today I can’t help but smile when I think of Bob Yordy speeding around campus in his wheelchair.


When I returned to the office after my dental appointment, I asked one of my reporters, Jen Vogelsong, to contact the Keefers and tell Brian’s story. Jen did just that, spending weeks reporting the story and spending time with Brian and his family. On Oct. 5, 2008, her story ran on the front page of the York Sunday News.
The package included the main story and smaller pieces of text that we in the industry refer to as breakouts. The breakouts included everything from explaining quadriplegia to telling people how they could donate to a medical fund set up to help Brian.
Lots of great photos accompanied the story. There was Brian soaking up the sun in front of his Newberry Township home on his first day back after about 10 weeks at Magee. Brian surprising his cousins during a volleyball practice at Red Land High School. And a photo of Brian’s parents, Dawn and Steve, struggling to get him into their minivan for the first time.
But there were no tweets.
No Facebook updates.
No blog posts.
No videos or slideshows or Twitpics.
There was just the published story in the paper, which was also put on ydr.com.
Flash forward to the week of June 19.
News that the “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” crew was going to renovate Brian’s home spread like an Internet virus.
There were tweets.
Facebook updates and blog posts.
Videos and slideshows and Twitpics. And stories, lots of stories, and photos in print.
Put simply, reporters and photographers told this story in multiple ways using tools that allowed us to be immediate and thorough all at once.
We reported facts that were fleeting (tweeting: “The bus is here!”) and we documented the entire story in a way that will stand forever (like the 87-image photo slideshow or the time-lapse video), and we shared it on a mass scale (newspaper, web) and we shared it person-to-person (Facebook).
I had always been touched by Brian’s story and his determination, like Bob, to overcome such an enormous challenge. There’s something about fighting for the underdog that gets me pumped.
When I wasn’t checking ydr.com, where all of the coverage was aggregated under one tab, I was checking my Twitter feed or the blogosphere or Facebook for the latest.
I learned on Facebook that my friend Margie White and her daughter, Jess, visited the site a few times. They were pumped, too.
I read a tweet by Paul Kuehnel about neighbors making Welcome Home signs and saw the Twitpic he included. His tweet was retweeted.
And I watched videos on the Green Mesh blog that brought tears to my eyes.
The ways in which we reported, produced and shared this story have radically changed in just a few short years since Jen first wrote about Brian. And the ways in which I consumed the story and shared it have changed, too.
I will always remember a quote from Brian in Jen’s story.
“Someday I’ll get up and surprise you.”
Brian, I pray for that surprise. And when it happens, you can be sure that we will share your news with the world.

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About Buffy Andrews

Assistant Managing Editor of Features and Niche Publications for the York Daily Record/Sunday News. Also, Social Media Coordinator.

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