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Jersey Shore Hurricane News: Using Facebook and Crowdsourcing to Build a News Network

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, November 19 2014

Jersey Shore Hurricane News has grown into a news outlet for much more than just severe weather updates (credit: Robert Siliato)

When Hurricane Irene barreled down on the East Coast in 2011, one news source had some irregular advice from one New Jerseyan to another: "Fill up some Ziploc bags with water NOW and freeze....keep them on hand for when we lose power and you need that ice to keep the beer cold." The tip was punctuated not with a period but with a smiley face, and it was first posted to Facebook, the home of a new citizen journalism outlet: Jersey Shore Hurricane News.

Not all of the information was so lighthearted. Posts in the days before the storm hit included updates on the stock of basic foodstuffs at local stores, information about mandatory evacuation orders, reminders to charge your cell phone, and quotes from the ever-affable Chris Christie: “Get the hell off the Beach in Asbury Park and get out. You’re done. It’s 4:30 PM.”

During the storm Jersey Shore Hurricane News posted photos of the dramatic surf shared by readers, information about looting gleaned from a police scanner, and reassurances that the Six Flags attraction “Kingda Ka has not collapsed.” The site was used to crowdsource information about the availability of gas, price gauging, and places to shower or eat.

Launched on August 23, 2011, Jersey Shore Hurricane News garnered more than 20,000 likes in only four days, based entirely on word-of-mouth, Facebook shares and SEO (the name really tells you what you're getting). It has continued to be a source of community news and sunset-over-the-ocean pics, “for the people, by the people,” ever since. It now has more than 226,000 likes.

Merely Shore Lovers”

Justin Auciello launched Jersey Shore Hurricane News with two friends, but after the storm passed he took on full editorial responsibility. In those early days, explaining the mission to new arrivals, Auciello and his friends made it clear they are regular New Jerseyans:

“Reminder: We are not professionals. We are merely shore lovers who are doing our best to keep you informed. Thanks for following and contributing.”

While it's true that Auciello had no professional journalism training, he describes himself as a lifelong technophile and an enthusiastic early adopter of online communications (a term he uses instead of social media, because he was active online before social media was a thing).

Auciello joined Twitter in 2007 and was “blown away by citizen journalism...regular people breaking stories.” He cites the plane crash in the Hudson and the 2008 Mumbai attack as inspirational moments in citizen journalism.

This got him thinking more about the intersection of citizens and technology, and he began “trying to think in the open about how to get citizens engaged, not just [in regards to] the news...but also [in my day job] as an urban planner.”

Just when Auciello was really firming up his ideas about citizen media and the potential for civic engagement, Hurricane Irene came along.

“All of the ingredients were there to kind of seize the moment and create something,” Auciello tells techPresident. He means a momentous event that would need more attention than the mainstream media could provide, a need he believed he could fulfill, using his knowledge of social media and citizen journalism. “I had a sense it would work...and it worked.”

He chose Facebook as the platform, because “Twitter is for media people; my audience was just regular people.”

Connecting People, Organizations and Government

After Irene, it was clear to Auciello that he'd done something right with Jersey Shore Hurricane News. Readers and contributorspoured out effusive thanks for Auciello and his friends' hard work, and encouraged them to keep it going. Auciello reassured them that he would.

It helps that a storm leaves a slew of needs in its wake: a need for information about food, water, and generators is supplanted by a need for information about rebuilding and refurnishing homes and applying for federal disaster assistance. It also helps that severe weather events aren't so uncommon as we might wish them to be. Auciello had plenty of fodder for his news site.

He was also beginning to wield quite a bit of influence. “After Irene the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management (OEM) asked to meet with me to see what I was doing and what my objectives were,” Auciello told a FEMA representative earlier this year. “Given the popularity of the page, they wanted to know who I was as they were concerned that I would spread some erroneous information. After we met and I was vetted, they asked to partner with JSHN in providing information to my audience.”

Since Auciello had established a relationship with OEM, during Hurricane Sandy they were able to send him weather and news updates directly, so that he could inform his audience as quickly as possible.

When Auciello began receiving messages like “Help! I'm stuck!” or “I think I might die, the water is rising,” he reached out to OEM.

“After prompting concerned citizens to first call 911 and then provide JSHN with their address, number of people and any medical conditions or injuries,” he explained, “we were able to help get a lot of the people who had reached out via JSHN. New Jersey OEM would reply back to them directly on Facebook to tell them that someone was coming to assist them.”

Another challenge during Hurricane Sandy was stopping rumors.

“I've never seen anyone [intentionally] share anything fake,” says Auciello. “It's not the wild west.” But he adds that during Superstorm Sandy it “kind of got out of control. Every half a second someone would share information.”

“There were tons of rumors going around that were creating a lot of problems for first responders and it became an issue on the page as well,” he told FEMA. “A lot of people were asking questions around these rumors on the page and I had to tell people to just send these rumors to me via a private message instead of posting it to the page in order to prevent them from spreading any further. That too worked and I started getting tons of messages. This is great because I want to maintain that JSHN has only credible verified information. If a rumor was determined to be true, then I would post it to the page.”

Courtney Chibbaro, a Jersey Shore Hurricane News contributor, says the page has impacted both her professional and her personal life, especially during Sandy.

“One of the worst feelings,” Chibbaro wrote in an email to techPresident, “is being told you have to leave your home and that no one can guarantee it will be there when you get back. The best thing you can do is get information and know what is going on. JSHN was the only outlet for me during evacuation and being displaced that provided that for me.”

As a case manager in elder care, Chibbaro used information from Jersey Shore Hurricane News to help prepare her clients for the storm, whether that was helping them find shelters or basic necessities.

After the storm Chibbaro volunteered assisting AmeriCorps. “I became the in-between for many of the townships and the volunteers as far as where to go for help, what resources were available to them and what steps to take,” she explains. “JSHN allowed me to constantly post where the services were available, to see who was in need, to link up people with resources and to get the message out there that help was here.”

From Emergency News Service to Day-to-Day News Platform

One thing Auciello did learn, in between Irene and Sandy, was that it is better to share longer, more detailed posts than lots of short updates. For a long time Auciello treated it like Twitter, and it was clogging up his readers' newsfeeds. Better to have a high quality post that makes it to the top of the feed than a bunch of shorter ones that give readers Jersey Shore Hurricane News fatigue.

In between disasters, Auciello says he enjoys getting to write more feature-like stories, like this one about snowy owls. (“Nature is huge” with readers, he adds.) Contributors share upcoming community events and post pictures of lost pets on an ongoing basis.

Auciello considers anyone who submits a photo, an event, or a tip a contributor. If he is the editor than they are “the reporters on the ground.” Contributors are more than sources or tipsters, he insists.

Robert Siliato, an amateur photographer, came across Jersey Shore Hurricane News when friends of his began sharing the status updates on Facebook. He tells techPresident that he began sharing photographs shortly after that.

As a surfer, Siliato often gets to the beach early in the morning. He began sharing sunrise photos that Auciello would then repost to the main page. (In case you haven't interacted with a Facebook Page recently, posts from regular Facebook users are shunted onto a subpage called “Posts To Page,” and they only appear on the main page if a Page administrator re-shares it.)

Siliato also pulls out his camera, even if its just his cell phone camera, when he spots something particularly news- or share-worthy, like a fire or a road accident.

“In the winter we get some pretty massive waves,” he tells techPresident. “If I get a shot of a guy getting barreled I think people would be interested in seeing that. It's not the kind of thing cable or network news would even share.”

Jersey Shore Hurricane News is so popular, Siliato believes, because “it's real time, up-to-date, it's fresh. It's not this stagnant cable news where you have to wait a certain time to see what's going on.”

Siliato contributes because he likes the positivity on the site, and the feeling that you're helping out. He also gets quite a lot of traffic to his own personal photography Facebook page out of it.

“I'm not going to say I couldn't run it without the contributor base,” Auciello tells techPresident, “but it was created for the whole purpose of being connected to the community.”

For the first year and a half Auciello made absolutely no money at all. It was, as they say, a labor of love, which he executed on top of a full time job.

In June 2013, Auciello entered into a content-sharing agreement with WHYY, Philadelphia's primary public media provider. He works on a freelance basis for them, writing the Down the Shore blog. His articles are cross-posted at Jersey Shore Hurricane News.

Later that year, in August, Auciello received a grant for $25,000 from the New Jersey Recovery Fund to expand the capacity of Jersey Shore Hurricane News and ensure its continuation.

Auciello still works full time in addition to his freelance reporting and writing.

Beyond Journalism?

A sustainable, crowdsourced citizen journalism site that has been instrumental in keeping people informed and safe during at least two major storm events? That is without a doubt a powerful platform. With the alleged mismanagement of Sandy Recovery Funds in mind, I asked Auciello about the potential to use this platform for community organizing or advocacy.

“I'm not an advocate,” he says. “I see myself more so as a traditional reporter...trying to be objective as possible.”

Advocates can always pitch him stories, but, he says, “obviously there are some things I choose to cover over others.”

Auciello points out that every day for a year after Superstorm Sandy he would post a message, letting people know where they could volunteer, where they could go if they needed help.

Auciello tells techPresident that as the two year anniversary of Sandy approached he struggled deciding how to commemorate it. “I'm just one guy,” he says, “not really equipped to do big stories on following the money.”

Instead, he put together a slideshow with photographs of empty lots and destroyed houses. “There are people all around me who are struggling after Sandy,” he says. “I'll never say 'hey, these people need help,' but I will tell these stories through their photos.”

Auciello has branched out in other ways. Last winter he reached out to an urban planning colleague, Wansoo Im, to get his help with a mapping project. Im helped Auciello set up the Jersey Shore Hurricane News Snow Plow Crowd Map, which tracked the progress of snow plows, or lack thereof. It was a way to hold officials accountable if certain areas were neglected or ignored outright.

On Facebook, Auciello asked people: “How do you rate the snow removal response in your community? Provide as much detail as possible. Please specify locations.” He added, “Officials: take a look.”

Some of the responses prompted NBC New York's Brian Thompson to travel to Long Branch to do a segment on underserved areas, including the area around a hospital that was a danger to workers and patients alike, and got the mayor to admit that they could have done better, and would try to do better in future.

Thanking contributors for their responses to his question on Facebook, Auciello wrote: “So the moral of the story is that your voice matters here! / We're here to empower you and amplify your voice. People are listening.”

Chibbaro also believes Jersey Shore Hurricane News has had a tangible impact. “We see the work of JSHN,” she writes, “when we have a volunteer event and see volunteers by the hundreds show up because they "read it on JSHN," or when a family is in need and within an hour someones tangible needs are met by those that are ready to give on JSHN.”

She adds: “When I post or see Justin post a need that is there and see how many people cultivate creative ways to help someone... well it makes reading the newsfeed on the site feel like it's Christmas every day.”