MSM: port in a storm

And social media was not as useful as I’d thought it’d be

Sandy was the first natural disaster I can remember experiencing not as a reporter but as Joe Reader/Viewer. (I’ve only reported on a few: the 1989 SF earthquake a few days after the fact; Hurricane Bob in 1991, which was something of a non-event; 9/11, and maybe a couple of others. I was out of town for Irene).

In the end, my Brooklyn neighborhood didn’t get damaged much at all. But there was a time, starting at about 6 p.m. Monday when my attitude began to slip from a complacent assumption that this would be a replay of Irene, that is, a non-event for us, to a creeping realization that, in fact, I really didn’t know how this was all going to go. I wasn’t worried, exactly, but, like everyone else, we were all huddled indoors and curious about what was happening around, as they say on the local news, “the tri-state area” in a way that was more than abstract. Maybe it was when I took a stroll down the street, turned a corner, and nearly got knocked over by the wind.

This is just me, but at that point, I wanted to know the basics, and I wasn’t even sure what that meant. Basically, what’s happening? I went to the Times website and heard about outages and flooding in Lower Manhattan. Then my wife suggested we turn on the television, which, for me, turned out to be just the thing—just plain old “Chuck and Sue” on Channel 4. (As it turns out, of course, Sue Simmons was pushed out earlier this year, replaced by Shiba Russell.) I honestly can’t remember the anchors’ performance much, just that it was competent and unhysterical. For me, the format of checking in with reporters around the region—Long Branch, New Jersey; Lower Manhattan; somewhere on Long Island—and back to the anchors, worked. I have to say, even the old trope of reporters in raingear getting blown around in the wind gave me a sense of how bad it was out there. What can I say? I have no idea whether WNBC’s coverage was better or worse than other stations, but it did the job for me. I felt I got a sense of the big picture, where the trouble spots were, and whether we ourselves had to do something. Answer: No. Even though I don’t typically watch local TV news, I now understand why, as a Pew study shows, when it come to breaking news, more people rely on local TV than any other source by far.

When Time Warner Cable went out around 8 (I only remember the time because I tweeted it), we definitely felt a bit cut off (especially when I thought Verizon had gone down, too; turns out I forgot I had my phone to Wifi; in fact, Verizon worked well throughout). I basically kept up via the NYT mobile app and its updates, which told me about the extent of the power outages in Lower Manhattan (where visiting relatives were stuck in a hotel) and later, about the massive subway flooding.

My Sandy news experience left a couple of impressions:

First, I was struck by the extent to which the Times, as the main regional paper, became almost a public utility after a certain point. Stuck in the house, we needed power and gas, and then we needed information, more or less in that order. Both the Times and the WSJ explicit recognized their public-service/public-utility role by taking down their paywalls for the storm. The move was both public-spirited and savvy.

This is why the decimation of a newsroom in a place like New Orleans becomes even more pressing and tragic than even in normal times.

Second, and this is just my experience, when it counted, social media, which for me is mostly Twitter, played a supplementary role, at best. The #sandy hashtag provided a rich stream of information, heavily reliant, interestingly, on government sources, but not a coherent picture. My normal Twitter feed, likewise, provided a rather jittery mixed bag: amazing photos, sporadic reports from various neighborhoods, a lot of good-spirited observations, and as well as a bit of confusion, which lent itself to some humor opportunities. Even CNBC anchors had trouble verifying photos of, get this, sharks supposedly swimming around Jersey. I found Twitter interesting enough, but not particularly useful and only after I knew the basics.

(ADDING: And I didn’t have to contend with the serious junk streamed by @ComfortablySmug. It was admirably policed and sorted out in the end, but who needs it?)

That’s just my experience, and for what it is worth. But that’s social media: tailored to individual experience. It’s hard to know what everyone else is seeing. I’m sure others experienced it differently, and I see we’ll be hearing more about it.

In fact, Hurricane Sandy could be seen as useful test case of social media’s utility during a disaster. After all, disasters and other breaking news events are when social media typically shine. And New York is a social media capital.

One idea would be to study, a la Pew, social media’s strengths and weaknesses as a newsgathering and distribution device before and during Sandy, say October 28-29: who used it, how, where it did best, where it actually made things worse. Right now, no one really knows. But right now Sandy does not seem like coming out party for the utility of social media in a crisis. (ADDING AGAIN: And, once the outrage has died down, @ComfortablySmug is another case that needs closer study. How to deter the panic-monger?)

You get the feeling its potential as a public utility is far from realized, particularly during big breaking news event when news becomes more than an abstraction.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman. Tags: