Local online news publishers are covering Superstorm Sandy in a personal, vital way

Posted on November 05, 2012 by Janet Coats

As a Floridian and a journalist, I know a little something about what it takes to cover a hurricane and its aftermath.

I was here for Andrew, and for the four-hurricane season of Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. I know that information becomes a precious commodity – quite often, a true lifeline – when a storm is bearing down on a community. I know that it become even more precious in the confusion and chaos these storms leave in their wake.

And I know that covering storms like this can put a strain on even a well-financed newsrooms, backed with a staff of reporters and editors, IT support and folks who will take care of logistics like food, water and transportation.

I cannot begin to imagine how hard covering a storm like Sandy is for the independent community publishers we’ve come to know through the Block by Block Community News Summit.

That’s why I’ve been overwhelmed in this last week, as I have watched the coverage these publishers are providing to their communities. I know what it takes to do this with an army; I’m awestruck at what these publishers are doing on their own, often while dealing with storm losses of their own.

Large news organizations can give all of us the overall picture, the scope and sweep of the storm and its impact. But anyone who has lived in a community hit by a hurricane knows that the most vital news and information is not the tour of the region by the governor and the president.

It is finding out where to get drinking water, or baby formula. It is finding out what conditions look like on your street if you’ve been evacuated and can’t get back home. It’s putting out the word about friends and relatives you haven’t been able to contact since the storm started.

In moments like this, for those directly impacted, the news that matters becomes intensely, vitally local. It is in moments like these that journalism really matters in a way it rarely does in our everyday lives.

There are examples of this all along the East Coast, but I’ll give you just three that prove the point:

Ned Berke publishes Sheepshead Bites, a community site devoted to the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn. We just spent time with Ned at the Community Journalism Executive Training program we helped organize in Los Angeles two weeks ago.

As the storm hit on Monday, Oct. 29, we were watching Ned’s site anxiously, seeing him post that water was rising around his own office. His neighborhood was hit hard, and Ned will have some personal losses to deal with from the storm.

But by Tuesday, Ned was going full tilt in covering the storm’s aftermath, setting up  a place on his site he called the Hurricane Sandy Information Exchange and Volunteer Network – a place where people in need of information or help could connect with those in a position to give it. He’s continued to refine and add to the coverage as the situation as shifted, focusing on the news people in his neighborhood need most to navigate their very difficult daily lives.

“Thank you to everyone updating on here,’’ wrote one commenter. “This area is severely underserved by our news media.’’

“Living out of town, this was the best and only source for Manhattan Beach information last night,’’ wrote another. “Greatly appreciated.’’

We got to know Denise Civiletti through our Super Camp business mentoring program. Denise, her husband and her daughter run the Riverhead Local site on Long Island. In the aftermath of Sandy, Denise was answering questions from readers, going out herself to check on neighborhoods and nursing homes, and running a list thanking local residents who had helped out their neighbors in need.

“Thank you, Riverhead Local, for your tireless commitment to the residents of Riverhead,’’ wrote one commenter in the days immediately after the storm.

Debbie Galant is another Super Camp alum, who attended when she was publisher of Baristanet in Montclair, N. J. Recently, Debbie took a position at Montclair State University running the New Jersey News Commons, a network of community news sites around the state.

Debbie has been a one-woman state bureau for New Jersey since the storm, using tools such as Scribble Live to enable community publishers to post news from their communities and to keep posting their own stories even if their site went down.  In a post about the effort on the Block by Block site, Debbie said the coverage drew more than 100,000 pageviews on the night of the storm. She’s also organized an effort to cover the election, with an eye on troubles caused by the storm’s aftermath.

Covering the storm has been just the beginning for these community publishers. They will remain a vital source of truly local information for their readers as the shock of the last week fades and is replaced by the tough work of rebuilding homes and communities.

Accurate, local information is just as important to that rebuilding effort as bricks and mortar. I’m certain that, when it comes to providing that lifeline of information at the community level, the neighborhood level, down to the very street level, the independent publishers of New York and New Jersey will do themselves proud.  They’ll continue to remind us all that community journalism matters.

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