For local newsrooms covering hurricanes Harvey and Irma, 'the story is just beginning'
In August 2011, as Hurricane Irene headed for New Jersey, Justin Auciello created something new – a pop-up news outlet that lived on Facebook. He called it Jersey Shore Hurricane News.
JSHN soon became a daily news site fueled by community contributors. In October 2012, as Hurricane Sandy approached, JSHN was ready. It helped prepare people for the storm, gave them a place to share tips and made the most of its partnership with the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management to help find people who were trapped by rising waters.
"We also provided around-the-clock news and information during and for months after Sandy. We were crowdsourcing information on where to find gas, water, food, etc," Auciello said. "We'd post a thread every hour and people would respond in droves. We helped to organize the humanitarian relief effort by compiling community and shelter needs and altering people to what was needed and where to deliver. To control rumors, we'd post a regular 'rumor control' that would debunk erroneous information that we were hearing. We'd also tell stories of hope, resiliency, and progress in our communities to keep people moving forward."
Sandy's recovery is still ongoing. That process is just beginning for Houston and parts of Texas after Hurricane Harvey and in Florida after Hurricane Irma. Auciello spoke with Poynter via email about the stories journalists need to tell now, working with the community and cheering for them in the process.
"For us, it's all about helping the community," he said. "Nothing is more important."
Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.
I'm guessing national media has already left Houston and parts of Texas where Harvey hit, and soon they'll leave Florida. What's next for the newsrooms that remain?
If the Sandy recovery is any indication, the story is just beginning. People in New Jersey are still struggling with government issues, unscrupulous home contractors, insurance companies, and financial issues. Understanding that newsroom operations increasingly become lean, it will be incumbent on editors to listen to their communities, engage, and prioritize reporting tasks. No story from a community member is too outrageous. We've heard it all since 2012. Listen, investigate, and report. Your mission is to protect the public and push for the truth. You will encounter major community problems during the recovery. Trust me.
The reality is that some stories will go untold and reporting might not be as in-depth. But understanding those limitations, providing your community with both social media and offline forums (even sending reporters out to coffee shops and engaging groups of citizens) will show them that you care and want to help. In post-disaster reporting, your job goes well beyond just informing. You also become a community organizer and cheerleader. You need to improvise and adapt as community needs pivot and situations arise.
What did your community need from you as recovery began, and do you have any tips that can help local newsrooms be ready for that?
At first, our community needed real-time, accurate information. Where can get I find gas? Food? Water? When will my power return? Where can I volunteer? What do the shelters and relief workers need? We dropped everything to provide that. The community was instrumental in providing that info.
As the recovery evolved and community needs turned, we realized that it was impossible to cover everything and also perform our daily duties, so we collaborated with other news organizations to assist with the flow of information. To successfully help your community – after all, we also live here and it's our obligation as information providers – your newsroom has to be malleable. Don't be afraid to make radical changes as needed. I know it's easy speaking as a tiny indie outlet, but don't be afraid to make adjustments. Also be sure to balance the good with the bad. While there will be plenty of sad stories to cover, you'll also discover how resilient your community will be – tell those stories; inspire.
Traditional media, in some places, can still be pretty one-directional. How can they better connect with their communities now?
From the start, we've always been two-way. In 2017, with the ubiquity of social media, I'm still shocked to see so many news organizations, particularly the indie ones like us, still employing the unidirectional approach. But it's never too late to start.
I've always preached at conferences and in conversations with colleagues to "bring the online offline and vice versa." Engage with your community members wherever and whenever you can. The forum doesn't matter. Just make sure it's meaningful and both sides leave with a call to action. If it's offline, be sure to report it online and organize there as well. Online, take it back to the streets. When I consult on community outreach and engagement strategies, I always tell my clients that you have to "complete the loop" to make the effort meaningful. Also, you might think helping your community and cheering it on is possessing a bias. That's false. You can remain objective while also fulfilling your duty to your neighbors.
Thanks to support from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in New Jersey, we had success with deep listening and engagement through the Listening Post program. Listening Post, created by New Orleans public radio guy and Internews' Jesse Hardman, uses both a physical recording device that you can place somewhere (like a library and relief center like what we've done) and a phone number to send a series of text questions and receive responses. Be sure to contact Jesse to learn more how Listening Post can help your newsroom. I trust that it will help inform your reporting.
I'd also suggest creating a dedicated group or page on Facebook to engage your community. But be genuine! Don't just use it as a place for tips. Help people to connect with each other, and if you do use their tips, why not also call them contributors? That's what we've always done and while non-traditional for legacy media, we think it sends a strong signal to the community that they're important members of the reporting team.
Lastly, I recommend that you identify the most engaged people in your community group and ask them to check in with you over the coming months. That way you'll stay connected with representatives of the community even if you don't do any other outreach.
What other things should local journalists and newsrooms be doing now?
Self-care. It's something that's rarely discussed, but it's so important. Eat well. Drink plenty of water. Exercise. Take regular breaks from sitting, walk the neighborhood, and breathe! Take the time to enjoy your family. Don't bring your phone to bed. (In all honesty, I'm still working on improving my own self-care – I owe it to my wife, family, friends, and myself.)
As a totally related aside, you experienced Irma in Puerto Rico, right? What was that like?
I did! My wife and I have a house in San Juan, and I was there for Labor Day weekend. It was too expensive to fly out when Irma became a likely threat, so I stayed and of course, reported the storm. I created a Facebook page, Puerto Rico Hurricane News (PRHN), where I was posting updates before, during, and after the storm. I'm a veteran of hurricane reporting, but it was my first experience in the tropics.
Most of Puerto Rico escaped significant damage, and I've been updating PRHN since to share information on the USVI, BVI, and the other Leeward Islands. They all took a severe hit and will need assistance for likely years to come.