In Jersey and Puerto Rico, Storms Urge a Reinvention of Local News Gathering

Justin Auciello must wonder how his life became so entwined with the movement of terrible winds.

When Hurricane Irene blew chaos and destruction into the lives of millions of people in the Caribbean and the along the East Coast of the United States, it also brought with it the spark of an idea that would change the course of Auciello’s life and career.

The ripples of that wind, and that idea, may spread further yet.

From his home in South Seaside Park, New Jersey, Auciello, an urban planner by trade, recognized that in a time of crisis and confusion, access to timely and reliable information was critical to a community’s ability to cope and respond.

Underwhelmed by existing traditional efforts to provide that information to locals during Hurricane Irene, Auciello took to Facebook and began posting and sharing whatever verifiable information he could find on the storm. He called the Facebook page Jersey Shore Hurricane News.

Within hours of Hurricane Irene hitting the Jersey Shore on August 28, 2011 it had 500 likes. By the end of the storm, 27,000.

When Hurricane Sandy ripped through the coast 15 months later, Jersey Shore Hurricane News became one of the key pieces of the region’s emergency communications infrastructure, gathering a network of engaged locals and intrepid citizens in a free and accessible information distribution service that no legacy media or municipal organization could match. Facebook was it’s only outlet.

Today, 240,000 people follow Jersey Shore Hurricane News, which has evolved into covering other locals news of interest, including traffic and weather, guided by the tagline: “News you can use.”

Auciello was lauded far and wide for his ingenuity in reimagining what a local news distribution network could look like in a time when the models that have served American communities for decades have abandoned their own evolutionary drive.

And he became an inspiration for those of us, like me, exploring what creative solutions we can bring to help local people avoid the disempowerment and alienation that usually happens when local news providers fail and information deserts begin to spread like toxic patches.

Like a war correspondent with a knack, or curse, for happening upon a small town a day before the tanks roll in, Auciello must by now becoming a storm-chaser’s totem.

And so it was that he found himself in Puerto Rico last year (his wife is Puerto Rican), caught up in the tragedy and tumult cause by Hurricane’s Irma and Maria.

With the island in ruins and basic infrastructure and communications systems nonexistent or in disarray, Auciello was in many ways exactly where he needed to be.

Could the simple but effective system behind Jersey Shore Hurricane News be put in place there to help the people of Puerto Rico share vital news and information about emergency, relief and redevelopment efforts?

Today, about three months since Hurricane Maria abated, Auciello is training and coordinating 12 local news and information contributors in various communities across the island, and publishing their reports to a central Facebook page: Information As Aid - Puerto Rico.

“Right after the storm there was very little flow of information,” he says. Already understaffed local news outlets were not able to respond to the massive information need.

“Local media in Puerto Rico is struggling big time. For the most part, immediately after the storm radio stations here was only able to report what people were coming in to the station to tell them directly, basically what was happening in the immediate neighborhood. Often they were just repeating the same stuff over and over again.”

The Information As Aid project is filling a critical gap in information infrastructure at a time when local media outlets are struggling, and fierce competition for revenue is discouraging outlets from collaboration and content sharing. (Information As Aid is led by NetHope; and Auciello has been seconded from InterNews to lead the project.)

It’s also an experiment into whether community contributors, with little or no journalism training, can sustain a reliable and informative news site beyond the frame of emergency response.

When I spoke with Auciello this week, he was preparing for the second in-person training with the 12 contributors, each of whom is paid by Nethope. They were chosen because they were active citizens in their community.

To help administer the program and find the kinds of people NetHope was seeking, NetHope hired Glenisse Pagan, who operates a local nonprofit and has an existing network of relationships across the island.

“When I first met the contributors I said, I know you’re not reporters, but you’re here for a reason,” Justin recalled. “You’re here because you care deeply about your community.”

Each contributor covers about four municipalities. Puerto Rico shares some of the geographical and technological challenges that foster similar issues of isolation in rural Appalachia, with long distances between communities, and a mountain range running through the island.

In the wake of the storms, 99.8 percent of residents lost cell service, though that is returning. NetHope is one of a number of organizations expanding wi-fi access through the use of VSATs and other temporary solutions.

To help the community contributors gather accurate and pertinent information, and function like trained reporters, Auciello created a series of question templates to guide them through interview situations, with unique question sets for talking with locals, municipality reps, local NGOs, international NGOs, and first responders.

“We encourage them to start by going after the low-hanging fruit,” he says. “Talk to the local NGOs you are already familiar with. Talk to the Mayor. Write down whatever basic information they give you, and go from there.”

The contributors get their content to Auciello by posting to a private Facebook group, which is the team’s primary means of communication.

To provide proof of information sources, Auciello encourages the contributors to include a photo or short video of the people they interview.

He knows that Information As Aid, like Jersey Shore Hurricane News, will thrive or die based on the quality and accuracy of the information it shares. Rigorous fact-checking and adhering to journalistic standards is one of Auciello’s core tenets.

“I say to the contributors, ‘even though you’re not journalists, you need to conduct yourselves as journalists,’” he says. “Veracity is really important.”

Sometimes the content is just lists - basic bullet-point facts of needs, times, dates or places. But Auciello encourages the contributors to be more creative in painting a picture of life in their community.

“Go down to the panadería, go hang out in the plaza and listen to people,” he tells them. “Take some photos of whatever is happening in the street.”

As the Facebook page admin and content curator, Auciello spends a lot of time verifying information before he posts, calling people, following up with email contacts.

This seems to be where the game will be won or lost - whether one guy is able to ensure the journalistic quality of content produced by a loose collection of citizen reporters. The integrity of that content will become increasingly important as the reputation of this local reporting initiative grows, and national and international media organizations ask to republish news it originates.

For the moment, these kinds of vertical broadcasting partnerships are not a focus, but Auciello does hope that local reporters will use the Information As Aid facebook page as a resource to help their own coverage, and thus further boost the spread of vital information to locals that need it.

Information As Aid - as the name suggests - was focused initially on the logistical utility of basic emergency communications, which in the case of Puerto Rico’s recovery looked like the location of recovery centers, their hours and needs, where donations of food, water and clothes are most needed, and what sites have electricity and wi-fi.

But Auciello sees this moment as an opportunity for the project to transition, or evolve, into deeper storytelling, exploring the broader and more complex narrative of the people and places of Puerto Rico. He followed a similar path with Jersey Shore Hurricane News, once the immediate response need had abated.

“After Sandy, I was trying to focus not just on the news of the day, but also tell stories of hope, or inspiration, of overcoming adversity,” Auciello says. “I wanted to tell stories of people making improvements.”

This type of content will be much harder for untrained journalists to produce, and so Auciello envisions a new phase of expanding the network of contributors, more training and support resources, and more direct involvement in communities to build the beginnings of a new communications infrastructure that might last.

To give contributors another template to follow to produce more narrative-style story content, he’s working with Jesse Hardman at Internews on the idea of asking each contributor to pick a person in their community, and write a short piece once a week about how that person is doing, at that time.

The thought is that, over the period of a few months, the combined entries will provide an illuminating insight into the day-to-day life and concerns of Puerto Rican people.

In Puerto Rico, telenovelas - soap operas - are hugely popular. Auciello says that’s because of the inherent connection that people have to the ancient tradition of storytelling.

“The hard facts are super important, but let’s tell a story,” he says. “People want to relate. People want to know about other people, how they are living.”

Auciello’s hopes for the expansion of the project is, of course, dependent on the continued funding support of organizations like NetHope and InterNews.

For me, his example has compelled me to envision similar community contributor networks in underserved regions of Appalachia, places where the sense of isolation and abandonment are just as strong.

Here, the human catastrophe unfolds more slowly, but the erosion is no less devastating.