In the days following the impact of Hurricane Sandy along the New Jersey coast there was a plethora of panic, an abundance of rumor, and even some disbelief as to the extent of the devastation caused by the 2012 storm.
For many, including those without power or access to traditional news outlets, social media became the hub of conversation.
And in the midst of the evolving conversations about the storm, there was Justin Auciello.
But the New Jersey resident, a city planner and land use consultant, is far from an ordinary Facebook user.
Mr. Auciello is the man behind Jersey Shore Hurricane News, a platform on Facebook dedicated to fostering conversations in the form of a “two-way news outlet,” which combines the crowdsourcing powers of social media with the journalistic screening of an editor.
“It is really not just a news platform,” he says. “It is really a place where the community can come together.”
Auciello founded the site in August 2011, in the days before Hurricane Irene struck the mid-Atlantic. He had become involved in Twitter in the years prior and developed an interest in social media as a mechanism for embracing the power of individual citizens to share knowledge and information.
“I have always had an interest in what is going on around me,” he says, recalling times as a youngster when he would hop on his bicycle and chase fire engines in Seaside Park when he heard the siren go off.
“Twitter changed a lot – it showed the power of citizens in reporting breaking news,” he says. “People have smartphones, they are on the ground, and they post it to Twitter and it gets re-tweeted.”
Auciello began writing about this convergence, and as news reports about Hurricane Irene picked up, he saw the chance to try something new.
“I saw the opportunity to create something, a platform where people can be active participants in the news-gathering process,” he says.
In a more immediate sense, Auciello was frustrated about the false rumors that were circulating related to the storm, emergency services, and ultimately, response and recovery. He saw Jersey Shore Hurricane News as a means for knocking down such rumors while harvesting reports from average citizens that he would edit and verify.
“I wanted to have people leverage the power of something so accessible, and something everyone is on anyway,” he says.
In the months following Hurricane Irene, Auciello worked to expand the types of stories his Facebook platform encompassed, to include more local news and developments. His largest trial, by far, came in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy riddled the region with damage that far exceeded expectations.
“My role throughout that time … I was the editor,” he says, explaining that when folks would report things to him, he would confirm the facts before disseminating the information and giving credit to the contributors. He also encouraged those with unconfirmed reports or rumors to message him privately, in an effort to prevent further panic.
And he saw a unique function of his platform emerge in the days following Hurricane Sandy: People in the community began to have a dialogue with him about a number of things, including where to find help, how to support those affected by the storm, and where to find things like gasoline or a hot meal.
He also served as an intermediary, sharing with his many thousands of followers when a resident would locate items that might have been lost from damaged homes, such as, in one instance, a photo album.
Thanks to Jersey Shore Hurricane News, some shore residents were reunited with items they had lost.
“This is what makes it unique,” he says. “It is really a mechanism that keeps people together.”
The platform seems to occupy a gap where traditional news media do not operate, and goes far beyond what traditional outlets do in terms of engaging with audiences, he says.
“I really think it is filling a need in the New Jersey news ecosystem,” he says. The site currently has more than 200,000 followers.
While Jersey Shore Hurricane News is solely based on Facebook, Auciello has received a grant that will provide for a website and a stronger platform for the news service.
Auciello continues to serve as editor-in-chief of Jersey Shore Hurricane News. And while he is not paid for his work, it has become a daily project. His around-the-clock efforts to keep the site running do not bother him one bit.
“I do it because I know people rely on it,” he says. “This is how I serve my community.”
• To visit Jersey Shore Hurricane News, go to https://www.facebook.com/JerseyShoreHurricaneNews.