As a network, the Internet is big and impersonal.  And yet, sometimes the Internet can be as neighborly and as vital as neighbors talking across a fence. 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Charley, Fort Myers, FL, News-Press’ Web site is using the power of the network to provide unique and valuable services to friends and family of storm victims.  With many residents still without power and/or phone lines, the News-Press site is using what it calls “Info Exchanges” to help relatives discover information about loved ones, to help friends check on the status of friends, and even to help absentee property owners learn if their homes are still standing. 

The News-Press’ Info Exchanges – actually nothing more than forum software put to a different use – provide a fascinating view of “social networking” and an indication of how connected we have become.

Even as important, the Info Exchanges highlight the unique and important role media companies can play within their communities.  The Info Exchanges -- with thousands posted so far -- are providing some of the “glue” that is holding residents, friends and family together.

The News-Press has stepped beyond traditional reporting roles with this initiative, but its presentation of important community information appears to be more of an extension than a departure from core journalistic objectives. The role of news organizations in serving communities in crisis has been the subject of recent analysis and debate on Poynter Online.

The postings on the Info Exchanges revolve around two key concerns:

  • Is my family [friend] safe?
  • Is my home still standing? [Or is my vacation place still okay?]

These brief requests for information make for heartbreaking reading.  Yet, there are also thanks from readers from as far away as Turkey and England for information about loved ones.  Here's a link to the Arcadia Info Exchange:

In an e-mail interview, we asked Mackenzie Warren, the News-Press’ Multimedia Editor, about how the Info Exchanges came about.

“The information exchanges, for example were an idea unwittingly sired by our editorial page editor, Gail Palmer, who is not super tech-savvy. She simply suggested we put something on our site asking people if they had questions about their home or family, and we could try to get them answered. But as soon as she said that, it occurred to me we ought to let readers give those answers, because they were on the front lines in the neighborhoods more than our reporters could be,” he wrote.

After putting one exchange together for the entire community, Warren realized that it would be more effective for the site if they regionalized it.  So they split the exchange into about a dozen communities.  In that way, readers would have a easier time navigating the long [and growing longer] postings.  The fact that the exchanges are running as on a forum software platform makes it a very “linear” experience.  Readers can scroll up and down; searching is impossible.

One of the key aspects to creating the social network was the decision to display the e-mail addresses of readers.  This “empowered [readers] to communicate directly with one another. A social network was being born, just when, and just under the precise circumstances, it was needed,” says Warren.

There are other aspects of this instant network that are worth noting:

  • The News-Press deployed editorial page editor Palmer to directly answer as many general questions as possible via e-mail or phone.  She posted answers to recurring questions.
  • The paper held a live chat with the assistant city manager of Fort Myers Beach.
  • The paper created a blog so readers could follow a family going home to a destroyed house.
  • The site enables readers to post where to find items such as ice, gasoline, water or cash.  They even had postings as to which areas had beer.

While some Web site managers worry about reader created content, Warren is proud of how his site engages readers to report on the details themselves. “Readers proved to be both trustworthy and accurate in their statements,” he wrote.

As of this date, the News-Press has yet to remove an offending post.  However, staff members do monitor all the postings and publish some of them in the print edition of the paper.

Of course, it's flexibility that turns out to be one of the key success ingredients for the News-Press.

“None of this would have been possible if our technical team didn't respond the way they did -- that was part of the quick evolution. People who aren't journalists and have lots of other responsibilities acted fast when asked to stretch existing tools we had to do jobs they weren't meant to. For example, we didn't have the ability to intervene in one of our forums and answer questions posed in individual posts, but our operations manager Christy Sobolewski re-wrote the software in an hour to enable that to happen. That opened the door to the public service information clearinghouse, the chat and the blog,” Warren wrote in response to our questions about the Info Exchanges.

The power of networking is well known in other aspects of the Internet.  EBay is a great example of large network that is generally self-governing.  The News-Press shows us a different side of social networking that was born out of tragedy.  Just as powerful.  And perhaps more meaningful.