The first post went up sometime just before 2:34 p.m. on September 12.
Just a few minutes later, the first of 375 comments went up on the next post, which also included a photo live from the Jersey Shore boardwalk fire. Throughout the rest of the day, 27 more posts followed, each garnering hundreds of likes and comments.
Most expressed dismay; others, who clearly were first learning of the fire via Facebook, expressed surprise. (From Roz Dolling: “Omg this is recent wow.”) Some alerted friends by tagging them in comments — “Nicole Ouimet did u see this? Jean Frank????” asks Trish Parratt Cherri. Videos and photos began to trickle in, live from the scene.
The man behind the updates was Justin Auciello, the founder and sole operator of Jersey Shore Hurricane News. It’s a Facebook-only news outlet with over 200,000 followers, most of them concentrated in a few counties of New Jersey. Auciello has been building up this following since just before Hurricane Irene hit in 2011. He has no particular background in journalism; by day, he’s an urban planner and consultant.
After Irene, Auciello decided he liked operating the page so much that he would expand its scope to daily news, traffic and weather. To build an audience, he’d do things like call for photo submissions and post a sunrise and sunset from a contributor everyday. By the time Hurricane Sandy came barreling in, Auciello had a community in place that trusted him and his information. His work as a journalist connecting shore residents with information and resources won him praise, grant money, and even the appreciation of the White House.
It’s not quite true to say Auciello built an online news operation by accident — there were plenty of purposeful choices along the way. But it’s nonetheless remarkable that an outlet that developed this organically now reaches an audience this big and long-lasting.
“It’s not so much even reporting,” says Auciello, “as a platform where people say, ‘Hey, I need help with this, or I need assistance,’ and people respond to that. It’s not so much traditional reporting, but also a community resource. ‘I lost my hat.’ ‘I need this service.’ ‘If you’re on the beach, how’s the weather?’”
Responding to all queries, no matter how small — or how daunting a task — is a big part of what’s made JSHN a success. “People contact me all the time and say, ‘You need to do this.’ Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t. But I listen to everyone,” he says. “You need to be willing to take chances. You have to be willing to do things differently from legacy media. You can’t operate in a 100 percent top-down way. You need to have this two-way dialogue.”
At a recent Citizens Campaign event, a community member praised Auciello, saying, “There was a trust that was built immediately, within those few days. You did it. You should definitely parlay that into something with the — I don’t want to call it legitimate — traditional media. People in this state know you now, and you have credibility, because you don’t just let the rumors fly.”
Verification is something Auciello takes seriously. He says he doesn’t think of his followers as commenters or “likes,” but as contributors in their own right. But when they post something, Auciello won’t repost it to his larger audience until he’s checked it out himself.
For example: “I generally will not publish anything about a car accident unless I know if there was an injury, because generally the first thing people ask is, are people injured? And that’s a common, 100 percent natural question…You really don’t want to leave unanswered questions, which, in my opinion, always lead to speculation, and that leads to rumors, and then, you know, the viral nature of social media, that tends to spread.”
During Irene, Auciello says JSHN “managed to knock down a ton of rumors that were floating around the Internet just by contacting local people and emergency services and being in contact with the sheriff’s office.”
Chris Satullo, vice president for news at Philadelphia public radio station WHYY, where Auciello also works as a freelancer, says his colleagues were impressed with how “amazingly clued in he was to the traditional standards of journalism, even though he’s coming at them in this new media way.”
Auciello also seems to have a gift for turning misfortune into opportunity. He resents being told “you got lucky because you built up your audience…because of these tragedies,” but it’s true that, sans hurricanes, there could be no Jersey Shore Hurricane News. Auciello says while the hurricanes were disastrous, the audience comes from providing useful content, which also served him well when it came to filling the news gap in southern New Jersey.
According to Satullo, WHYY has been struggling to keep up with New Jersey news since Gov. Chris Christie sold the transmitter towers and call letters that previously belonged to the New Jersey Network.
“They’ve basically gone uncovered for decades in South Jersey,” Satullo says, citing the irregular reporting efforts of The Philadelphia Inquirer, local Gannett papers, and NJN before its dismantling. “The people of South Jersey to a degree felt ignored.”
Molly de Aguiar is director of media and communications at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, which helped facilitate donations via the New Jersey Recovery Fund, through which Auciello was awarded $25,000 to expand his project.
“New Jersey is a very poorly served market — sandwiched between the New York and Philadelphia markets means that the issues and challenges we face in NJ are often overshadowed by news from NYC and Philly,” she wrote in an email.
As a lifelong consumer of news and resident of South Jersey, Auciello felt the sting of neglect as much as anyone. He likes to say that as a boy, when he heard fire engines, he would jump on his bike and chase them down. “I’ve always been really fascinated by not just gathering information, but sharing that information,” he says.
Auciello’s love for sharing encapsulates both JSHN’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Using Facebook — and, to a lesser extent, Twitter — as the platform for his reporting allowed Auciello to quickly build a large and highly engaged audience very quickly.
“The ability to post something and it ends up in someone’s stream and they can see that without having to do anything — that’s a lot more powerful than just posting a link and saying, ‘Hey, go here,’” he says. “I’m kind of pigeonholed in many ways to social media, because people are so comfortable with that platform.”
But the drawback is also clear: “I’m not sustainable right now. From JSHN itself, I’m not generating any revenue.”
Post-Sandy, he was able to parlay his audience, experience and demonstrated commitment into a freelancing gig at Newsworks, WHYY’s digital experiment in online community and user engagement. (More on that venture in this recent story from NetNewsCheck.) Satullo says Auciello’s existing network became a logical part of a summer project that was funded through the New Jersey Recovery Fund, a series of community forums addressing how to move forward and work toward a “more storm-resilient community.”
Neighbors worked they some tough trade-off about responding to Sandy and next time: http://t.co/Mgm85V2xru
— Harris Sokoloff (@civiclyengaged) August 1, 2013
“It’s driving an enormous amount of traffic to Newsworks, and hopefully we’re doing the same for him,” Satullo says. Auciello produces one to two posts a day for Newsworks, many of which come directly from interactions with his Facebook “contributors,” and which are cross-posted on both sites.
“He created a really important news organization in the state of New Jersey on Facebook. The only problem for him is, any money made on Facebook goes to Mark Zuckerberg,” says Satullo. “We’re not looking to exploit what he’s doing, but collaborate with him where it seems mutually useful. He stepped in and took something we’d begun to another level. He’s benefitting from hanging out with journalists who have been at it a little longer than he has, and our guys are benefiting from seeing his energy and passion for his community. So, should he have a website? He’s got to find some way — horrible word, but — to monetize, and make a living off this somehow.”
But so far, despite the grueling hours and personal sacrifices he’s made to the site, Auciello hasn’t decided exactly how he wants to do that. The money he received from Dodge will fund a standalone website and a mobile app, to be launched by spring. “He took the information to the place where people already are, and he made it easy for them to get it,” writes Aguiar. “Now that he has established such a large following, he’s finding that he’s outgrown Facebook and would like more robust tools at his disposal to serve his audience.”
While Auciello isn’t sure if the final product should be a for-profit or nonprofit venture, he’s dedicated to one day being able to hire reporters. But despite the seven-day-a-week schedule — “I’ve missed out on a lot of things in the past few years,” he says — it’s more important to him that the audience continue to be served than that the project become profitable.
“There have been times when I’ve been so discouraged, because I get tired sometimes. It’s hard to keep up in real time and be constantly on, and your mind constantly going,” he says. “But the times I get down, I start thinking: People really like this. They like being informed. And that keeps me going.”