Posts about sandy

Cover Sandy recovery and get money

Hey Jersey journalists: There’s a big opportunity in New Jersey to cover the Hurricane Sandy recovery and get support from a group of foundations to get started and build a media business.

My personal wish for this money is that some smart journalist sees the chance to cover a huge story, bringing accountability to this effort (in a state that always needs accountability!) and starting a new service that can live and serve the shore community for many years after it is rebuilt.

The New Jersey Recovery fund has an RFP up now (full PDF here, HTML here). The money comes from the Community Foundation of New Jersey, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Knight Foundation, and others.

When I first discussed this funding opportunity with Knight’s Eric Newton, he told me a great story of a newspaper that sprouted up in the Oakland Hills (Newton was managing editor of the Oakland Tribune) to serve just 5,000 families disrupted by a huge fire in the 1990s. He said it lasted a year and a half and was even profitable.

I think that’s a great model for what could happen in New Jersey but now online. Imagine starting a site to cover the recovery at the shore … and then imagine having a brand and audience to carry on to build into a robust and ongoing hyperlocal business. Hell, if I weren’t busy, I’d do it.

Whether you like my idea or not, there is a great opportunity to bring journalism to the Sandy recovery — to start a local site, to watch how money is spent, to help communities and governments do a better job of communicating in the next (God help us) disaster, and so on. Have at it. The deadlines are nigh.

I also argue that New Jersey is a spectacular laboratory for building new futures for news. There’s an opportunity to work collaboratively with entities from to NJ Spotlight to Pro Publica to the New Jersey News Commons, which has started out of Montclair State to help grow and improve the state’s news ecosystem with training, promotion, collaboration, and other services. New Jersey needs more journalism. The journalists who take up the opportunity will get more help. Have at it!

Disclosures: I work with and helped start it. I helped start the NJ News Commons working with MSU. I also advise Dodge. And I live in New Jersey. I care.

Journalism as service: Lessons from Sandy

I was badly informed in the aftermath of Sandy. I blame the news. After all, isn’t that its job: to assure we’re informed? Shouldn’t news organizations be judged by that standard?

The other day, I argued that news should be seen as a service, not a product, and that journalists should measure their success not by column inches or by page views but by results: whether we, the public, know what we want and need to know. Sandy provides a good test-bed for this idea of outcomes-based journalism.

After Sandy, what journalists provided was mostly articles when what I wanted was specifics that those articles only summarized. Don’t give me stories. Give me lists.

I wanted lists of what streets were closed. I wanted lists of what streets the power company was finally working on. Oh, the utility, JCP&L, gave my town, Bernards Township, lists of streets, but they were bald-faced lies (I know because my street was on that list but their crews weren’t on my street). The town and our local media outlets only passed on these lists as fact without verifying. I wanted journalists to add value to those lists, going out to verify whether there were crews working on those streets. In a word: report.

I wanted media organizations or technology platforms to enable the people who knew the facts — my fellow townspeople — to share what they knew. Someone should have created a wiki that would let anyone in town annotate those lists of streets without power and streets — if any — where power crews were working. Someone should have created a map (Google Maps would do; Ushahidi would be deluxe) that we could have annotated not only with our notes and reports of what we knew but also with pictures. I’d have loved to have seen images of every street blocked by trees, not just for the sake of empathy but also so I could figure out how to get around town … and how likely it was that we’d be getting power back and how likely it would be that buses would be able to get through the streets so schools could re-open.

But instead, we got mostly articles. For that’s what journalists do, isn’t it? We write articles. We are storytellers! But not everything should be a story. Stories aren’t always the best vehicle for conveying information, for informing the public. Sometimes lists, data bases, photos, maps, wikis, and other new tools can do a better job.

My local weekly paper was as useful as always. Not. It gave me articles days after the fact that told me nothing I hadn’t already ferreted out. In my town, Patch* blew it. Here was its opportunity to be *the* hyperlocal resource for my town. Even though it had no newspaper to fill, it still insisted on giving me articles. When I couldn’t reliably find out about where power work was occurring from the town or Patch or the paper, I did use Patch to post an open letter to the town complaining about officials passing on JCP&L’s bogus lists and I learned more from the comments there than from those articles.* gave me articles but also did give me some lists, constantly updated, which I hung on to find out the latest on roads and transit — and so I could decide whether I had any hope of getting into New York and work. Those lists were great but, a statewide paper being what it is, they couldn’t tell me about my neighborhood.

That’s where the need and opportunity remain: in very local information. No one has cracked the geographic nut well — not big papers, not big networks of sites, not Twitter. Desperate to find open gas stations, we gathered around the #njgas hashtag but it wasn’t terribly useful learning that a station 50 miles away just opened up. I needed someone to add value to that list of posts about stations by putting them on a map.

After my neighbors and I got out our chainsaws and cut through probably three dozen trees to free us from our blocked streets and driveways, I went to, a platform that enables neighbors with verified identities and addresses to create private networks.

In a neat bit of functionality, I was able to delineate my own neighborhood — which is valuable information to a site, knowing what someone considers a neighborhood to be. But Nextdoor scolded me and said I didn’t have enough neighbors, forcing me to include people who live 2.5 miles away I’ll never meet — because Nextdoor thinks it knows better. Its mapping data sucked and many of my neighbors couldn’t join but Nextdoor wouldn’t let us fix the addresses — even though we know better. We wanted to talk about power and buying generators and trees still lying over our streets and more but Nextdoor gave us a tab to talk about “crime and safety” because they think they know what we want. No. You’re a platform only if and when your users take over what you’ve built and use it in ways you never imagined because they find it that useful.

What I want from news and technology companies is a platform that enables us in the community to share our knowledge. I want them to provide an opportunity for — or shame — shame town officials, utility companies, transit officials, as well as local businesses — even gas stations — into using such a platform to share the data they have and invite residents to add to and improve that knowledge. I do not expect the journalists to be able to gather all that information. In the words of Emily Bell, Clay Shirky, and Chris Anderson in their new tome, Post-Industrial Journalism, I expect the journalist to move up the value chain. Or in my words, I want the journalist to add value, to ask and answer the questions that aren’t already known. Do what you do best and link to — or build a platform for — the rest.

* Disclosures: Patch has long listed me as an advisor though I am not one. I am, however, an adviser to and helped start the service back in the day. I have no relationship with Nextdoor.


I’m pretty darned good at complaining about bad service or products. That means I’d better praise great service as well. So I want to thank some folks for helping my family through the storm. We have power back today. Thousands more still do not have power and, worse, do not have homes. Once again, we are most lucky.

The staff at the Bridgewater Marriott has been exemplary. As Sandy threatened New Jersey, I made a two-day reservation for last Monday night. When it was clear we couldn’t even get out of our street, I managed to shift it a night. The front-desk staff fixed a problem with the reservation (whew) and managed to extend our stay through this morning (whew x 10). The first night, the hotel was overwhelmed. Even the front-desk staff helped serve in the restaurant. Absolutely every member of the staff we dealt with that harried night and on for the rest of our stay was incredibly helfpul, friendly, and empathetic — all the while many of them were worried about their own homes and families. Their generosity of spirit was most impressive. I told the wonderful Grace Lizardo, manager of the front desk, that we were so grateful to have an advocate and a friend there to help us.

I’m grateful for the power crews from Texas, Virginia, and Indiana who came to our street yesterday and restored our power — exhausted, far from home, doing dangerous work in hard conditions, but cheerful nonetheless. No matter what you may think of the utility companies, these guys are the heroes. As Bert Williams said in Twitter: “Utility line crews are the unsung heroes of any disaster recovery effort. Tough job in harsh conditions.” Amen to that.

Countless more staffers in restaurants and stores and gas stations and on the phone from Verizon, too, were helpful even as they were suffering through their own trials. Last night, my wife and I had a great dinner at a Greek restaurant in Somerville, NJ, (highly recommended) and the young waiter working a second job said his power came back on, then all the transformers in the neighborhood blew, and he’ll be without for another two weeks. We’ve come across so many folks like that.

As I said in my last post about the storm, I’m also grateful that I live in a neighborhood where folks banded together to help each other.

We are lucky and I just want to say thank you.

* * *

While I’m thanking, I’m overdue expressing my gratitude to @ahugo68, aka Alex Hugo, who a few weeks ago saw on Twitter that I was having a problem with my AT&T account (holding onto my precious unlimited data plan). Out of nowhere, he appeared and said that he was an AT&T store staffer and that he’d fix it. Little did I know how far he would go to help. I didn’t realize that he went into the store on a day off and got a flat tire on the way, to boot. But he said he couldn’t stand to see his company make a mistake. I thanked him and his boss on the phone but I also want to thank them publicly and say to every company that the key to success is not obvious: You need thousands of Alexes and Graces.

What stands between us and electricity

Six days powerless so far. Looking at this, I’m guessing another week or even two.


My family and I have been witness to and beneficiary of amazing providence in this week of Sandy. We are incredibly lucky. Seeing the complete destruction of entire neighborhoods on the Jersey Shore and in Staten Island and Queens and Hoboken only drives that home. This morning my wife saw an aerial picture of the shore town where she spent her young summers and was in shock: whole neighborhoods she knew had disappeared.

In our neighborhood in central New Jersey, we benefitted from acts of wonderful neighborliness. Our dead-end street was blocked by more than two dozen large, fallen trees. Most of our neighbors got together, got out their chainsaws, and proceeded to clear the street and driveways all day Tuesday. (Friends and family will be horrified to know that I, too, wielded my brand new chainsaw, but they will be relieved to know that I managed to break it in short order.) Our street is still blocked by a fallen utility pole but we managed to get some cars around it, until our route turned into a muddy trap, so we shuttle back and forth from this barricade.

On Monday night, as the winds of Sandy hit frightening velocity, a tree fell against the back of our house but we were terribly fortunate as it damaged the deck and roughed up the roof and some gutters but did not breach our home. Another 15 or more trees fell that night around our house — but fell away from it. (We live in the woods, though that may now be singular rather than plural.)

This was a fortunate story repeated up and down our block, where far more trees fell than anywhere I’ve seen in our part of the state (we live on what New Jersey calls a mountain, which apparently accelerated the winds). At one home, a garage roof got a bad gash but that was all. At another couple’s house, the wife worried about a tree falling in the master bedroom and so she moved to a grown child’s bedroom but the tree she feared fell right on top of it, sending wood through the ceiling a few feet above her head. She’s fine. Other houses were similarly hugged by dying trees but overall unharmed. More important, of course, is that all our neighbors were unharmed.

We live in an area with well water, which means that when we lose power, we lose water and toilets, in addition to heat and — thanks to being on Fios — the phone and, of course, the internet. Also, our nearest cell towers appear to have suffered damage or lost power, so we lost total communication in our house. Thus the social media that I tout so much was not as useful to me as I’d have thought. And now, after the storm, it’s still not giving us the very practical information we crave: which streets are blocked; where power is returning; when power will come to us; what restaurants and stores are reopening; where to get gas….

But I was lucky to have managed to make a hotel reservation and the staff at our Marriott has been amazing, letting us extend our stay and helping us with unfailing cheerfulness even though they are harried and overworked and surely worried about their own homes and families. At the restaurants that one-by-one reopen and stores, we have found the staffs to be gracious and generous just as we have found neighbors and strangers to be ready to help in a moment. At our reopened mall today — instantly filled with refugees from the storm — I saw a couple of guys commander electric plugs with power strips so they could watch over folks’ gadgets as they recharged. Yes, crises bring out the best in people.

There are frustrations. We have no idea when we will get power back. I have seen only *one* crew working within miles of our home. I’m frustrated and worried that our downed utility pole has prevented police and firefighters from reaching a home on our street with a bad gas leak and I am concerned about our elderly neighbors being out of reach of ambulances. Our police have been very helpful but we haven’t seen much of our town. Sitting in gas lines, I’m reliving my first big story as a reporter — the ’73 oil embargo — and wonder at how little we’ve learned. I doubt I’ll be able to get to the airport for a trip I’ll probably have to cancel and without trains or bas, I have no idea how I will make it into New York for my class on Monday; millions of commuters are in the same bind. Frustration will surely grow as our powerlessness continues for days and then weeks.

I’m also struck by our lessened investment in infrastructure and standards. When we built the POTS — plain old telephone system — we ended up with a system that assured us we’d still get a dial tone (remember that?) in spite of any problem short of a cut wire. Now, if you believe that weather could become more frequently extreme, then our wires on polls and breakable phone and internet systems and dependence on power to stay constantly charged and connected make us feel only more fragile at moments such as these.

But at the end of this long week, I am aware of one thought more than any other: I am lucky.