How One Hyperlocal Editor and His Site Chased, and Were Chased by, Sandy

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When a gigantic “frankenstorm” knocks out the power for your reporters and many other contributors, how can a hyperlocal site keep its coverage online and help its community? Here’s how The Alternative Press, the 19-site, 34-community network in suburban New Jersey, did it last week during Sandy under the direction of founding editor and publisher Mike Shapiro.

When, exactly, did you know Sandy would be everything meteorologists warned about?
It was approximately 8:05 p.m. on Monday night at my home in New Providence [in Middlesex County]. I had seen on Facebook earlier that people were losing power at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. and I thought the heart of the storm had passed.  Not quite.  At 8:05 that night, the power went out on my street and the hurricane wind seemed to increase exponentially. I looked out the window, and the trees near our house, large evergreens, were moving so violently that I quickly moved the whole family to the basement to wait out the storm until the morning. Meanwhile I stayed upstairs updating using my Hotspot until around 11:30 p.m., when my laptop battery died.

How did you assign your staff – by topic, by geography, a combination or other factors?
All our reporters live in our coverage towns. In this one case, it was a curse as all lost power. In the initial hours, I used my laptop and Hotspot to report for all of our towns. Now, some reporters have power and are covering their towns while I am covering the rest.

Did technology help you and TAP?
Yes.  We were able to get our news out on our site, through Facebook and through Twitter, so for many people, the only way they know what is going on is through their mobile phones. In addition, Facebook is providing us with valuable information from non-profits, businesses, and the government that we are then able to share to our Facebook pages and post on our site.

How many contributors sent TAP information, counting staff, the community at large, public officials, anybody else?
Hundreds.  Very few staff, since they largely still don’t have power, but so many residents and organizations and public officials emailed us, called us, texted us, Facebook-messaged us, etc.

What information you published was, in your estimation — or possibly from feedback — the most valuable to stricken communities?
So far, power updates, gas updates, commuting updates as well as event cancellations/postponements.

With the crisis unfolding as fast and relentlessly as it did, did you have to suddenly shift gears in how you gathered and published information to keep up with Sandy?
Yes, we quickly realized that elected officials and others have a lot to deal with, so we have used Facebook extensively to receive updates from them as well as organizations, etc., and then communicating those updates through our site and through our Facebook pages and Twitter.

What was the toughest news TAP reported?
This. The Mayor had received reports and we had reported on them in two previous stories that power was about to be restored (Wednesday night and Thursday night) and then got this news today. Especially since New Providence is our hometown, this was tough news to break to all of our readers and friends.

What was the most uplifting news?
Here was a great story.

If you or your staff so any gaps in the response, did you publish that, or maybe privately alert any officials?
We actually contacted several high-ranking officials in NJ and asked them to intercede on behalf of our towns and ask the JCP&L (our electric company) send more workers to our area.

From a couple days’ hindsight, anything you want to say about how New Jersey — from the state down to the community level — was prepared for such a catastrophe? Should there have been better preparations, everything from infrastructure to response mobilization?
A storm of this level had never happened in New Jersey so I don’t blame the state for being caught unprepared. I think, in hindsight, generators should have been provided to all gas stations or there should have been a law requiring all gas stations to have a generator since fuel shortage is a huge problem here. Also, some of our towns have been great about communicating with the public through Code Red and other email, phone and texting options but others are behind the times. In general, I think there need to be a better solution to above-ground electric lines throughout the country because storms like this are likely to become more likely in the future and the loss of life and productivity could be reduced through a better system.

In reaction to the events since Sunday night, have you any new thoughts about the future role of four-year-old TAP, based on your original mission?
Before Sandy, I thought we were providing a real service to our community and helping a lot of people. After Sandy, I think we’re a necessity and for communities that do not have a hyperlocal TAP, they need one. It also gives me even more reason to expand TAP through licensing to as many communities as possible so the same kind of exemplary service and quality local news we provide here can be provided all over the country.

Do you have any story that typifies how the community thinks about TAP post-Sandy?
Just go to our Facebook page – hundreds of new Likes on our main page and town Facebook pages since Sandy and hundreds of comments of thanks and interaction.

Recovery in many communities may be long and expensive. What kind of resources will you use to keep your users informed over the long haul?
Once our reporters are back up and running, we will be utilizing them to cover the recovery for as long as the recovery continues.

What was the impact on businesses in your community? Did they want to place ads about their products and services tied to the emergency situation?
While most of our business districts have been without power, many businesses with power contacted us and asked us to post on our Facebook pages that they were open or special offers etc., which we did. I am monitoring local businesses’ Facebook pages and sharing updates from there, as well.

What’s your advice to hyperlocal sites that want to be what TAP now is, but may have limited resources. Can the small, one-community site be equally essential to its potential audience?
I think it can be. I’ve been updating most of our 34 towns by myself, so I see no reason why a one-community site can’t update their town.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites built around how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.

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