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After #Sandy, WNYC Radio Shows How Pro-Am Crowdsourcing Can Fill In the Picture

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, November 1 2012

With millions of residents of the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut tri-state area without power since Superstorm Sandy swept through the region Monday, a complete picture of the devastation and loss remains out of reach. Yesterday, I visited Oceanside, on the south shore of Long Island, where I grew up and where my mother still lives in our family home. Situated four miles north of Long Beach, Oceanside is filled with split-level suburban ranches on low-lying land touching the Middle and Hewlett bays. Sunday afternoon, I had driven out to evacuate her before the storm came in, and we rode it out at my home in Hastings-on-Hudson in Westchester, where tree-downings were rife and thousands, including us, lost power Monday. But that was nothing compared to the experience of people closer to the ocean.

As we got near Oceanside, signs of flooding were everywhere: in front of every house, people had dragged wet furniture and ruined carpets to the sidewalk, and many were trying to dry out their flooded cars. Talking to a relative who lives a few houses from my Mom, I learned that the storm surge had come rapidly and stealthily, "like a slow-motion tsunami," and few people had time or warning or ability to move to higher ground. Many had lost several cars in addition to the flood damage. This ice box, which floated onto Mom's front lawn, came from a store four blocks away.

Something else started to come into focus as we visited with neighbors and struck up conversations with people on her block: Not only is everyone without power (90% of Long Island's residents), most people are also largely cut off from contact with the rest of the world. About a mile south of Sunrise Highway, cell phone voice and data service stopped working, reportedly because of the failure of a tower in Rockville Centre. Even text messages don't get through. Someone in my Mom's neighborhood had a house phone with dial tone that some people were using, but for the most part it was impossible to get information in or out of the town without actually going there, or driving north to where service started working.

The one sure connection that people in the stricken zone have, however, is radio. And so this is a love letter, to my public radio station WNYC, and in particular to how its staff has embraced the "pro-am" collaborative model of public journalism. Starting on Monday morning, when Brian Lehrer, their popular morning talk host, began his show an hour earlier than usual, WNYC has been providing nonstop crowd-sourced journalism that merges the best a professional news team can offer with the reach of a radio station that is heard fifty miles in every direction from Manhattan.

Lehrer's show in particular is like a switchboard for raw and vital reporting from all corners of the region. Sometimes he asks listeners with a particular kind of experience or location to call in; other times he has managed to tap local citizen journalists with their own crowdsourced networks, like the "Jersey Shore Hurricane News," which calls itself a "bottom-up, two-way news outlet." And he isn't just a host reading scripts handed to him; he listens and tracks the online conversation in real time. How do I know this? Tuesday night, as I sat by candle-light in my darkened home, I heard Lehrer bantering with one of his colleagues, who was delivering a round-up of some of the odder stories floating around the news that night. The person, whose name I forget, mentioned that a shark had been photographed swimming on a city street somewhere in New Jersey. I quickly tweeted at @brianlehrer that it was a fake. Moments later, I heard him correct his colleague on air, citing a tweet he had seen (presumably mine).

For several years now, Lehrer and the rest of WNYC's news team has been experimenting with all kinds of ways to engage their listeners as news gatherers. Five years ago, before any of this was fashionable, they asked people to go to their local groceries and bodegas and report on the cost of a six pack of beer, milk and lettuce.. The answers were mapped here, with some clear price-gouging revealed.

Back then, Lehrer commented to me in an email, "One of my interests is best examples of 'pro-am' partnerships. We've done crowdsourcing on my show, partnering with listeners, and in one case with the Huff Post's Off The Bus.  As we go, we learn more each time about what makes a successful pro-am collaboration." He might have added: And WNYC listeners have learned too, so that the word "crowdsourcing" isn't a foreign term any more. (Here's the video of a PDF local panel we did with Lehrer and Douglas Rushkoff on rethinking local radio in a networked age, back in 2010.)

Now people in the tri-state area are all getting the benefits of all that early experimentation--plus, the station has invested in building an accompanying multimedia infrastructure to extend its news-gathering, using new technologies. The Data News team at WNYC, led by John O'Keefe Keefe, has been churning out visualizations with real-time information on the changing situation on the ground, like this "transit tracker." Even the comment threads on these pages are informative. Transportation Nation, a multi-station news hub supported by funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, is another example of this work.

Not surprisingly, WNYC is experiencing a massive surge in web traffic since the superstorm struck. From last Friday until today at noon, they've had more than 3.6 million unique visits, according to Jennifer Houlihan, their head of public relations. Their Data News maps have been embedded on or linked to from dozens of major news sites, sending tens of thousands of visitors along the way. And all of this while working off of generator power, which Houlihan says is preventing most staff from coming to work at their downtown office. While no one has yet perfected the art of combining old and new media, Lehrer, Keefe and the rest of the WNYC news team are on the cutting edge.

This post has been updated to correct the misspelling of John Keefe's last name.