Back when I was in graduate school in the early 1980s, before Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and even before blogs, I spent one semester studying the concept of news diffusion. It’s been 30 years, and it was only one class, but as I remember it, news diffusion spoke to the unofficial channels by which major events were communicated. If you were old enough to remember the Kennedy assassination well then, how did you learn about it? Likely as not, you didn’t hear it on TV or on the radio. Somebody told you. That was news diffusion: the study of how news spread.
I think about news diffusion every few years, when there’s a story so big that it spreads from mouth to mouth, and I thought about it again recently in the beauty parlor, when I overheard a hairdresser and a customer discussing damage from Superstorm Sandy. Hairdressers are, of course, mighty vectors of information. What is there to do between color and cut but talk? The information I learned the weekend after Thanksgiving was vague and incidental — a wedding palace somewhere down the shore had been totally destroyed by the storm and Rt. 35 north of Ortley Beach had been closed — yet I listened intently, lest some prime bit of storm or recovery news should pass my ears.
I thought back to the two momentous days of the storm, and to the days immediately before and after, both when Hurricane Sandy was an enormous cloud formation hovering out in the Atlantic Ocean, and in the early hours of Tuesday, Oct. 30 when the first photos of the damage began to trickle in. As it happened, during that period, I was operating a news diffusion machine of my own making. Using a live blogging platform called ScribbleLive, and with the active help of about a dozen members of the NJ News Commons, I pulled in tweets, photos, news reports and video under the hashtag #NJSandy. This #NJSandy feed was, in turn, embedded by about 10 sites, and it drew more than 200,000 page views during the week of the storm. For six days, from the Saturday before the storm until the Thursday after, I did virtually nothing but manage this feed, and those days are a complete blur. But I can tell you that the flow of information — which came at me fast and hard and then faster and harder — formed its own kind of storm surge, peaking around midnight on Monday Oct. 29. And that information surge included contributions both from traditional news sources and from the informal ones my old professors would have referred to as “word of mouth.”
Even within that blur, some moments, especially on the night of Monday Oct. 29, stand out. Christie saying he would postpone Halloween by executive order, Jersey Shore Hurricane News reporting exploding transformers throughout the state, turning the sky blue, the photo of water pouring into the PATH station in Hoboken.
In between were hundreds of iterations. Hundreds of photos, thoughts, jokes and — especially in Hoboken, where our feed was being carried on several websites — questions from neighbors wanting to know how particular blocks were doing. Though I relied heavily on three Twitter feeds — those of Jersey Shore Hurricane News, NJ’s Office of Emergency Management and Gannett political columnist Bob Ingle — I was also drawing on anything in the Twittersphere tagged #NJSandy, along with contributions of hyperlocal bloggers throughout the state whom I’d recruited, and people who just stumbled upon us while searching for information of Sandy in New Jersey.
These days, many people are skeptical about the flood of information in the public sphere, and I am often asked whether the new hyperlocal blogs on the scene can really be trusted. It is true: with the advent of free blogging platforms and Twitter, with the tools of journalism all bundled into your average smartphone, anybody can deliver news these days. There’s no Walter Cronkite to tie a story up with a neat little bow and send it straight into the annals of history. And so there are mistakes. And worse, those who would purposely use the democratic nature of news dissemination these days to mislead. And certainly that happened during Sandy.
But I would suggest that the 20 million Sandy-related tweets that went out between Oct. 27 and Nov. 1 — along with the aggregation tools that allowed them to show up in the NJ News Commons #NJSandy feed and others — represent something as powerful as the epic storm itself. As the New York Times’ David Carr pointed out, the era of storm coverage being dominated by the “rain-and-wind-lashed correspondent” are over. Anybody — from the random tweeter to the hairdresser — can, and will, retail news in the midst of a breaking story. News organizations simply wholesale it.
That is not to say that the contributions of dedicated news gatherers were not important. Sometimes, in the case of Superstorm Sandy, they were even heroic. Sylvia Jauregui and her husband Julio Sabater, of Elizabeth Inside Out, were taking photos from the Port of Elizabeth long after it was safe. Doug Doyle, news director of WBGO, worked through the storm, even as his apartment building, across from the ocean in Union Beach was being battered, and then had to broadcast from a basement in Bloomfield when WBGO’s transmitters went down along with the power in downtown Newark.
But we did it together. We did it with the help of the public, and we had each other’s backs. Nobody in New Jersey was more crucial to the combined pro-amateur news effort during Sandy than Justin Auciello, who runs Jersey Shore Hurricane News, a Facebook page that supplements crowdsourced photos and news tidbits with Auciello’s reporting. Jersey Shore Hurricane News was one of just a handful of media properties handpicked for Governor Christie’s “storm preparedness” Twitter list of credible storm resources. Justin relied on his 190,000-strong network of stringers, and in turn many news organizations relied on him. In fact, he is still playing an active role in documenting the rebuilding effort.
Last spring, I took a tour of LBJ’s “Texas White House,” and I was amused to see that throughout Johnson’s ranch house, there were several consoles, each housing three television sets. Our tour guide explained that Johnson had these specially built so that he could monitor all three news networks at the same time. Such was the state of the media in the 1960’s. All it took to monitor the essential news sources of the day was a fancy little trick of cabinetry.
Today, those three TV networks remain, but they’re joined by CNN, Fox, MSNBC, NPR, as well as thousands of entrepreneurial news efforts based on the web and millions of people with access to Twitter.
It makes the question of news diffusion awfully complicated.
At one point on the Tuesday morning after the storm, as Sandy had passed out of our area and people were just beginning to assess the damage, someone from Montreal posted a question on my ScribbleLive blog, asking about conditions in Elizabeth. He had relatives there who weren’t answering their phones. Since Elizabeth Inside Out had been steadily contributing photos and news, and since I’d heard the governor report very specifically about the casualties that had been recorded to that point, I was able to say that, at least so far, it appeared there had been no fatalities in Elizabeth.
A few minutes later, this message came back from Montreal: “Thank God, thank you very much Debbie Galant.”
It was a tiny data point in the huge information surge that was Superstorm Sandy, the equivalent of a teaspoonful of sand, but it made me happy. As if, perhaps, someone had picked up a conch shell in Canada and dared whisper their greatest fear, and I, walking across a storm-swept beach in New Jersey, had heard the question and been able to answer.
Debbie Galant is a regular contributor to the Dodge blog on media issues. She is the Director of the New Jersey News Commons at Montclair State University. For more information, visit the NJ News Commons website, and follow NJ News Commons on Twitter @NJNewsCommons.