Newark’s Star-Ledger stays close to readers during Hurricane Sandy

As people across the East Coast hunker down in preparation for Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey’s Newark-based Star-Ledger is focused on staying close to its audience and providing around-the-clock information through the next few days.

“Readers want to have a direct line to us,” Editor Kevin Whitmer says. “And on something like this, having been through Irene last year, we’re in a little bit better position to learn from what we did there, what worked, what we need to do a little bit better.”

When Hurricane Irene hit the East Coast last August, it turned into a week and a half of non-stop reporting for The Star-Ledger staff. One big lesson from that was learning how best to deploy people and making sure the staff manages to still get rest, Whitmer says by phone Sunday night after putting the print edition of the paper to bed.

The focus is on keeping a close connection with readers, says Whitmer. The paper started a 24-hour live chat online at 8 a.m. Sunday to answer reader questions on everything from evacuation plans to public transportation. That chat will be monitored continuously until at least Wednesday, Whitmer says, and had already gotten about 500 comments by Sunday night.

Members of the Ross family, from Egg Harbor NJ, watch the rough surf of the Atlantic ocean in Margate N.J., Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012, as the area prepares for Hurricane Sandy. (Joseph Kaczmarek/AP)

The Star-Ledger usually has a staff of about 10 people on Sundays, including a day and night editor and six to eight reporters. But Whitmer says the newsroom had close to 60 or 70 people in Sunday as the staff prepared to cover what could be the largest storm to ever hit the United States.

They’ve also deployed about 13 teams throughout the state, focusing on coastal areas which could be hit hardest. Each team is comprised of a reporter and photographer; some have a videographer, as well.

“Everyone’s reporting,” Whitmer says. “There’s such a demand for everything immediately that mostly the people in the field are writing for online. Some of it makes print, some of it doesn’t, but we put everything online right away.”

While Whitmer says the staff has certainly learned from its hurricane-weathered colleagues at sister Advance-owned paper The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, he says they learn the most from the experiences they have covering extreme weather in their own state.

“The most important thing is knowing the lessons from what happens when we have severe weather here and what to look for in the state,” Whitmer says. “It’s such a unique state because there’s 9 million people here in a very small area. You know where the stories are going to be and you know where people are going to be.”

The storm is expected to make landfall in New Jersey late Monday, causing widespread power outages and property damage. It is being blamed for 65 deaths across the Caribbean.

Related: New York Times suspends paywall for Hurricane Sandy

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