The story of how WNYC covered Superstorm Sandy begins more than a year ago, in August 2011. That's when another big storm - Hurricane Irene - hit the East Coast of the United States. When Sandy was a looming threat over the Atlantic, the WNYC team knew just what to do and went to work.
"We've been through this once before [with Hurricane Irene]. We just tried to anticipate what [our audience] would want next," said John Keefe, Senior Editor for Data News & Journalism Technology.
For those in the greater New York City area, that meant maps; streams of tweets from every corner of the city with accurate, immediate information; and the chance to be heard.
"Early on, the mayor started talking about knowing the evacuation zones, so we posted those maps," Keefe said. "We knew transportation would be shut down, so we created Transit Tracker, a one-stop place for all transportation updates. We knew from the previous storm that inland flooding was a possibility, so we created a map. When the subway returned to service, we anticipated that it would be piecemeal, so we got started building a map [to show closures]."
Turns out MTA, New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority, had a similar idea and finished their subway map showing the closures, first. But WNYC took the data in the MTA's PDF and created an interactive version that resembles a Google Map.
All of the resources created by WNYC used free, government data compiled in an embeddable, open format to make for easy sharing and use.
"These maps were used around the world," says Keefe. "By The Guardian, The New York Times, NPR."
While no one really knew the extent of the damage Sandy would cause, it soon became clear to WNYC staff that it would be worse than Hurricane Irene, which had largely spared the city. Before the storm, WNYC asked listeners what they were doing to prepare and offered tips. With this back-and-forth conversation already underway, WNYC had positioned itself as a resource for the community about the storm.
"When the power went out, radio quickly became the only place to hear what was happening," said Caitlin Thompson, Editor, WNYC's Politics Site www.itsafreecountry.org. "Our audience wanted to know how they could help, and get resources and information like which restaurants and stores were still open. They were leaning on us in a way we could be responsive to."
On Monday morning, the first day of the storm, Thompson took over as the voice of the @wnyc Twitter feed. All automatic news feed functions were turned off, and she ran it manually for several days. With their newsroom connections, Thompson and the WNYC staff were able to report in real time as they were getting information from contacts spread all over the city who were tweeting what they were seeing and experiencing.
"It was perfect circular reporting," said Thompson. "We could talk to people, they talked back to us, we reported. It was a very unique, robust experience. It's a really nice way to be with the community, who thanked us for being the only one who was telling these details."
All Hands on Deck
That circular reporting was really a conversation WNYC was maintaining with their audience. In situations like natural disasters, where the story becomes hyper-local for all affected, WNYC found that the regular program schedule gets turned on its head and everyone chips in, in any way they can.
WNYC's Vice President of News, Jim Schachter, said "We set up the newsroom as a ... central nervous system of coverage. We had a group figuring out how to cover a giant emergency and news as it happens. It was all hands on deck. Everyone had a role to play. People just stepped into the roles that they could, such as reporting from their commute."
Along with the focus on local reporting, WNYC provided many opportunities to involve listeners.
"We are really good at opening up the phones and talking to people and letting people talk," said Schachter. "So we had a lot more Brian Lehrer on the air than we normally do. Leonard Lopate's show was a continuation of our storm coverage. A couple of evenings after the storm, instead of having an extended version of news at 9 p.m., we had Soundcheck, which is a music show we produce here." For two nights, Soundcheck host John Schaefer conducted a news and cultural conversation about — and with — the people who had lived through Sandy.
For Schachter, the key to facilitating that conversation was flexibility and dedication to the story.
"The insight was to be all in. Be all local. Use all the resources of the station, even the ones that aren't quite so obvious. There were a lot of people, nearly two million, who didn't have TV, they didn't have Internet. They had us." WNYC recognized the role they were playing in providing information. But they also knew they were providing something more, a place for a community in crisis to gather and talk to each other. Schachter notes, "We could provide the information. We also could provide a heart and help gather people to get comfort from being in this together."
By the way, the episode of Soundcheck Schachter mentioned featured special guest singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, whose own home didn't have power. The call-in show was about music to listen to, to support the process of recovery and rebuilding. Most of those listeners who called in to contribute song suggestions didn't have electricity either.