Down the Shore with Justin Auciello and Jersey Shore Hurricane News

    When Hurricane Irene started barreling toward New Jersey at the end of August 2011, Justin Auciello and two friends set up a Facebook page called “Jersey Shore Hurricane News,” and planned to post updates on the storm in one spot for as long as Irene pounded the shore.

    It grew beyond anything Auciello, an urban planner who splits his time between South Seaside Park and Puerto Rico, ever expected. By the time the storm hit the coast, JSHN had 27,000 users. And they haven’t stopped reporting the weather since.

    JAM: I remember you guys setting up on Facebook right when the threat of Hurricane Irene became very real. Why did you decide to do this?

    JA: Four main reasons: the Jersey Shore, weather, social media, and journalism. I’m a lifelong Jersey Shore resident. As a surfer, weather has always been an important aspect of my life. I’ve been tracking hurricanes since I was a child. I’ve also always been fascinated by breaking news. I used to hop on my bike at the sound of the Seaside Park fire alarm and chase down the fire trucks.

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    I’m also a longstanding early adopter and tech geek, so I have been fascinated by online communications since my childhood. I use the term “online communications” and not social media because I have been active in the online world before the start of the first web browser, Mosaic, in 1993. A product of Prodigy, CompuServe, and the BBS world (I ran my own for a few years), the power of online communications has always been very fascinating to me.

    Beginning with Friendster and MySpace in 2003 and then transitioning over to Facebook in 2004, I saw unlimited potential in interaction, news gathering and community building. However, due to the relatively closed nature of those services, we did not really see the explosive nature of news gathering and sharing until the introduction of Twitter in 2007. I jumped aboard (@auciello) in 2008. As Facebook continued to explode in size, the organizational strengths of the platform became evident. It’s different than Twitter in that it is a thread-based service, in which replies are attached directly to a post. As a longstanding Twitter and Facebook denizen, I have been actively involved in citizen journalism for years — always following strict journalism code in my reporting.

    JSHN was a natural extension on the evening of August 23, 2011. In my own barrier island community, panic over Irene’s potentially destructive impacts was beginning to simmer, and I knew that people were feeling this same anxiety throughout New Jersey. I felt a calling to create a “pop-up” news outlet in an effort to supply reliable, real-time news as well as serving as a platform for bottom-up reporting from users.

    My vision was to provide a literal ground swell of accurate information from both personal reporting and news curation from all angles — potential weather impacts, evacuation orders, shelter information, store closures. I also wanted JSHN to be a place where people could ask questions and provide ground-truth reports from their locations, which is exactly why social media carries so much value during breaking news situations. Recognizing the amount of content that was being shared, people began to “like” the page in droves. Within a day, JSHN went viral, attracting about 13,000 users by August 26.

    JAM: During the storm, what did it actually become?

    JA: By August 27, during Irene’s approach and initial impacts, JSHN jumped to about 27,000 users. People were quickly realizing that JSHN’s two-way, bottom-up nature was resulting in news sharing from all portions of NJ — and not just from us, as thousands of people were sharing information and asking questions: Who doesn’t have power? Is my area flooding? Should I leave my flood prone home? What’s going on with that fire? Is that tornado going to hit me?

    Not only had it become a real-time news outlet, it was also a virtual support group, as many people were very frightened. We were doing our best to respond to the questions and posts that were coming in non-stop, watching the weather radar, calling the various police departments for confirmation, listening to emergency radio transmissions. A major component of JSHN reporting was to quash rumors – like ones about the collapse of Kingda Ka at Six Flags in Jackson and a fire on the boardwalk in Seaside Park.

    In the days before the impact, we were constantly reminding people to keep their batteries charged, and thankfully, people listened. The beauty of mobile social media is that people can stay connected and obtain valuable information even during a power outage.

    JAM: You guys had a very active role in storm recovery. What did people use your page for most?

    JA: Irene did not end on August 28. The worst actually began when the storm pulled away and the sun popped out. Flooding inundated areas throughout the Garden State, and massive power outages remained for days. JSHN transitioned into a platform to serve a comprehensive humanitarian effort. I would post something that would be seemingly simple like, “where can I find a power generator in Monmouth County?” and a dozen responses would appear within minutes. The JSHN community was organizing everything, from food and clothing drives to sharing information about lost dogs to announcing when power was returning. It was a really special experience that again underscored the immense value of social media in handing crisis situations.

    JAM: When did you realize that you were going to continue on after the hurricane?

    JA: Recognizing the value of social media in news reporting firsthand in my own community, I knew that I had to nurture the service and allow it to evolve. During Irene, JSHN proved that people want information as it happens and are willing to help report the news, even if all they have is a mobile device and no power. That’s exactly why I say that JSHN is a bottom-up, two-way news outlet. 

    JAM: What was your next big weather event? 

    JA: The Halloween snowstorm was the next big event in which the two-way news reporting exploded. In the days before the snowstorm, which crippled North Jersey with heavy, wet snow that caused lengthy power outages, my friend Tim and I were forecasting the potential for accumulating snow with widespread power outages. Many people laughed. A few days before the storm, my girlfriend and I traveled to Puerto Rico to visit her family, and understanding my responsibility to the JSHN community, I told her that I would have to spend a good portion of that Saturday on the computer reporting the news and curating posts from the community. I brought my Macbook to the beach and operated off a tethered iPhone.

    In the days after the snowstorm, the humanitarian side of JSHN re-emerged, as people were desperate for information about generators, open supermarkets, and power utility information. We provided and curated information in a real-time fashion throughout the entire ordeal.

    Since then, JSHN has evolved into a nearly 24 hour a day news outlet, providing breaking news, traffic, and weather throughout New Jersey as well as serving as a community forum. We have an advantage because we currently have nearly 30,000 “contributors” around the Garden State that regularly supply information and help report on stories.

    JAM: What have you learned about the power of social media since then?

    JA: If used properly and moderated to protect against rumors (which is a major objective of JSHN — we only post news after confirmed by two independent sources), social media is a wonderful tool to inform people. People are naturally curious by nature and want information, posting simple questions like, “what’s going on with all of those fire trucks zooming down Route 72?” and “is there an accident on the Garden State Parkway near Exit 82?”

    Other people on the page respond to them with answers. JSHN is a true community of citizen journalists. People want news when it’s happening, not after the fact. As a real-time outlet with obviously very limited manpower, JSHN can only provide information as the story is happening. We leave the responsibility for the production of long-form stories with more details to other outlets.

    JAM: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever dealt with/shared?

    JA: Multiple incidents of unexplained ground shaking. Given that the bulk of JSHN users are from the Monmouth/Ocean County area, many are in the range of hearing or feeling military activity at the Joint Base. From time to time, especially during extensive training exercises, people will report that they felt something similar to an earthquake. I’ll immediately check the USGS Earthquake Map and respond that it is not seismic in nature. Usually right after that, someone will respond that they’re on the Joint Base and the military is testing equipment or dropping bombs.

    I also ask JSHN contributors to send me text messages with any news tips. I have received quite a few regarding UFOs, especially in the Pinelands region.

    JAM: Where did the idea of sunrise photos come from?

    JA: They started in early October when I started to realize that content was lacking. Content production has not been a problem since I rolled out real-time news, traffic, and weather reporting in late November 2011, but back in early October, when I was still unsure of the direction in which I wanted to take JSHN, I knew that I had to keep people interested. And you know what? People love beautiful photos! Within a few days posting sunrise and sunset photos, contributors began to submit their own shots. Now, it has become a daily ritual, and people love the routine.

    JAM: Now that you obviously report on all kinds of news, do you plan on changing the name anytime soon?

    JA: Ding ding. That’s the $64,000 question we’ve been grappling with for months. There are two sides to the issue. On one hand, “Jersey Shore Hurricane News” is a defined brand that people know and trust as reliable and responsive to their needs. While it does not obviously reflect our coverage, the brand is clear. On the other hand, I think the name limits our ability to attract additional people, which is a problem because the lifeblood of the service is assistance from citizen contributors. Each new “like” is a potential breaking news story for JSHN to investigate. The other issue is that Facebook does not allow a page to change its name after 100 likes are reached, but it is possible to request permission to do so. We’ll see.

    JAM: What’s in the future for JSHN?

    JA: JSHN lost about 5,000 or so contributors right after Irene, which is natural attrition after a breaking news event ends. Since then, we’ve gained about 6,000 contributors, all based on word of mouth and the organic nature of social media.

    At this point, JSHN is a strong community that serves as the “breaking news wire” for NJ. I regularly hear that people are seeing the news first on the page. The next logical step is the creation of mobile applications, which will allow for news targeting to specific locations and users to supply content as well. My vision is essentially an extension of what already occurs in the social media space, and certainly an integration of the two. We have no investors nor have received any revenue at this point. Even though I created JSHN for the love of breaking news journalism, with a full-time job, family commitments, and a social life, it is sometimes challenging to operate the service. I’d like to expand operations by raising money and hire some employees to grow the business and relieve some of the day-to-day demands.

    Regardless if JSHN remains as it is or expands, what brings joy is witnessing the positive powers of real-time social media. A few weeks ago, a contributor posted a photo of a 13-year-old boy, saying that he did not return home after school and his mother was very nervous. After inquiring with the contributor about whether the police were involved and receiving a “yes” response, I contacted the local police department and was told that the information was accurate. Within seconds, I posted the photo with a description, asking people to share. Some contributors began to respond that they saw him in a few locations along Route 9 in Southern Ocean County earlier that day. Within about 30 minutes, about 500 people had shared the photo with a description, and about an hour later, the stunning news came that after seeing the photo, a woman and her boyfriend saw the boy walking down Route 9, stopped him, and called police. After speaking with the woman and confirming that the boy had in fact been located and was with police, I shared the information on the page.

    That’s exactly why JSHN will continue with or without revenue generation.

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