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Sudden catastrophes, and why hyperlocal news coverage beats traditional reporting

By September 2, 2012websites

Put a stake in the ground: we now live in an era where aspects of the “journalistic balance of power” have shifted.

I was in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and blogged about it. My blog posts were of limited value to most people, but for those who knew I lived in New Orleans and had a blog they were apparently very helpful. But back then things were very different than they are just seven years later.

Back in 2005 there was no iPhone, and the “smartphones” that existed didn’t have useful cameras if they had them at all. Twitter didn’t exist in 2005 and Facebook was just getting off the ground. Use of mobile internet was also not available.

Today we live in a world where iPhones (and similar high-caliber smartphones) are everywhere. Those mobile devices are connected to high-speed wireless networks that reach everywhere, and the people who own those devices know how to do a lot of things with them: text message, tweet, post to Facebook, upload pictures or video, and gather useful information from other similarly armed citizens.

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The excellent website, Uptown Messenger, run by Robert Morris has done a fantastic job of keeping tabs on events affecting the Uptown area of New Orleans. During Hurricane Isaac his coverage has been peerless. The Times Picayune has to cover a much larger swath of the city, and the same is true for the TV stations. Their coverage is useful for getting a general sense of events affecting the metro area, but not as useful for getting detail about Uptown New Orleans.

Robert Morris has a background in journalism, so he brings that experience to the job. But he also knows how to gather information from other citizens who have smartphones and familiarity with Twitter. This morning a popular local bar called Fat Harry’s had a fire. Robert’s twitter post (with picture) was uploaded at 8:32 am. The Times Picayune website has a short story posted 30 minutes later, with a similar picture. The local CBS TV affiliate noted the story about Fat Harrys in a Twitter post, citing @UptownMessenger as the source.

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When a local state congressman named Neil Abramson decided to drive around and post useful updates using Twitter, Robert Morris began retweeting his posts. Robert Morris has (at this writing) 3,188 followers on Twitter and Neil Abramson has 1,125.

But it’s not about how many followers you have. Just as it’s not about how many reporters you have on staff or how many watts your TV or radio transmitter has. The question is: who can quickly provide useful information in a time of crisis? If you live in Uptown New Orleans during and after Hurricane Isaac the answer is: Robert Morris. Look at his map of power outages in Uptown New Orleans, which is created using actual users tweeting about which locations have power and which don’t.

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Entergy’s power outage map, on the other hand, has been criticized for inaccuracy (see sample tweets below).

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Uptown Messenger’s outage map has been much more accurate than Entergy’s map, even though the power company should have better information about where power is available. Is this because Entergy can’t provide better information on a timely basis, or that it isn’t interested in doing so? Doesn’t matter. We now know who can, and will.

After the chaos of Hurricane Isaac is forgotten Robert Morris will probably provide relentless hyperlocal coverage of Uptown New Orleans. He seems to have figured out how to monetize this effort. The larger news organizations don’t have the desire (or maybe even ability) to do hyperlocal news well. When the next local crisis event breaks out, I’ll be tuning in for Robert Morris’s coverage of it. And, like many other Uptown residents, I’ll be helping him in any way I can.

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