Eyes of the Storm

Outlets hustle to cover Sandy, with digital, social taking the lead

Two nights after Hurricane Sandy assailed the mid-Atlantic, whipping up a corrosive stew of seawater and galeforce winds that rendered the lower third of Manhattan a sodden Dark Zone, Jon Stewart returned to the air to salute first responders and local officials with a “Tribute to Institutional Competence.” 

After cracking wise about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s phonetic rendering of español and the delightfully
expressive ASL translator Lydia Callis, Stewart thanked Hizzoner and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for punting major rump throughout the crisis.

Theirs was a singular response to a singular event, free of the sort of political gamesmanship that can hobble a massive recovery effort.

Also unprecedented was the media response. While millions of people still relied on traditional news sources, the place to turn for real-time information from the frontlines was Twitter.

The dispatches you read here were filed from various sanctuaries throughout New York, places where friends took us in or dumb luck kept the lights lit. For the first time in its history, Adweek is publishing in its entirety from a remote location, our offices marooned in the dark of East 9th Street in Manhattan’s East Village. Following is our attempt to illuminate the events of last week.

With an estimated 8.1 million TV viewers without power, following news of the storm became an exercise in battery preservation. Screens dimmed to save juice and people activated the Twitter app on their smartphones, listening for virtual voices raised against the howling of the storm.

At its best, Twitter allowed those who were in the cone of destruction to share firsthand reports and photos. On Monday alone, the term “Sandy”. was mentioned 4.8 million times on Twitter, while Instagram played home to 10 photo uploads per second even before landfall. Some of the better pictures—like that of a carousel swallowed by the East River—were shared thousands of times via cable networks and local TV.

Late Monday evening, New York’s 911 call center was so overwhelmed that an NYPD Twitter feed began serving as a conduit between firehouses and New Yorkers in crisis. There were also far less noble moments: Tweeting under the handle @ComfortablySmug, hedge fund manager Shashank Tripathi falsely claimed that the New York Stock Exchange had been flooded.

For all that, Twitter’s self-correcting mechanism kept the hijinks to a minimum. Much of the noise in the system was actually good for a laugh; it’s hard to imagine anyone naïve enough to be gulled by a photo of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and Godzilla joining forces on Liberty Island.

The digital outposts of traditional TV platforms also scared up loads of traffic. WeatherChannel.com had its best daily performance ever, landing 450 million page views across all digital platforms—125 million by mobile and tablet alone.

Naturally, servers housed in Lower Manhattan were incapacitated by the power outage. Datagram, an
ISP that serves prominent sites like BuzzFeed, Gawker Media and The Huffington Post, went dark as Sandy reached the height of her powers. Following BuzzFeed’s lead, Gawker set up emergency Tumblr accounts to satisfy the Web’s insatiable demand for content.

For those lucky enough to remain powered up, TV served as a sort of Janus head, offering a steady stream of sobering news and the often-comical spectacle of reporters struggling to remain vertical across various seaside settings. A standout was CNN reporter Ali Velshi, whose Atlantic City reports resembled outtakes from The Perfect Storm. So dangerous was his assignment that it led to a commotion on Twitter. (“Dear CNN,” pleaded one viewer, “please let Ali Velshi GO INSIDE BEFORE HE BLOWS AWAY AND DIES.”)

TV also offered a balm to those rattled by Sandy’s fury. On traditionally low-HUT-level Halloween night, ABC’s Modern Family managed to scare up 10.4 million viewers and a 4.1 in the 18-49 demo, per Nielsen fast nationals. Much of New York and New Jersey being stuck in the dark didn’t have the impact one might expect. New York represents Modern
Family’s 105th biggest market; in fact, the show proportionately does its best numbers in sleepier cities like Victoria, Texas, and Toledo, Ohio.

A handful of preemptions and slightly lower ratings for the start of the week won’t move the needle on guarantees. Unfortunately, the networks were in plenty of hot water before Sandy arrived. Through the first five weeks of this season, Fox’s demos are down 24 percent versus a year ago, while CBS is off by 18 percent. (Cowen Group analyst Doug Creutz said last week that the “brutal” ratings declines will cost the nets in the near term. “Most broadcast networks are ikely looking at significant advertising makegoods this season,” he said.)

Sandy served as a reminder that New York is somewhat paralyzed without mass transit. With parts of the subway system under water and bridge and tunnel crossings in and out of Manhattan shut down, the storm knocked out delivery of the
city’s daily newspapers and forced weekly magazines to push back their publishing schedules. As the week wore on, the dailies slowly resumed delivery, though badly flooded areas remained inaccessible.

As New Yorkers came together to help feed and shelter their stricken neighbors, a number of marketers also rallied for the cause. Brands from Kellogg’s to Radio Shack donated cash to the American Red Cross, while Chevrolet rolled in pickup trucks and vans to aid in relief efforts. Duracell dispatched its “Rapid Responder” truck to distribute batteries and let power-deprived residents charge cell phones.

— With reporting by Emma Bazilian, Gabriel Beltrone, Lucia Moses, Sam Thielman and Charlie Warzel

— Callis/Bloomberg Illustration credit: Gluekit