Digital Publishing Demonstrates Its Worth During Hurricane Sandy

Social media helps disseminate info, though BuzzFeed, Gawker, HuffPost have technical problems

The practice of digital journalism was both tested and proved yesterday as Hurricane/Super Storm Sandy bore down on the East Coast during an unforgettable night for millions of Americans.

While digital media outlets have been dutifully covering the storm for days, several prominent New York-based online publishers were hit with some unexpected outages during the brunt of the storm last night. Around 7 p.m., reports came in through Twitter that Gawker Media's blog network was down. Only minutes later reports of site outages at both BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post began to circulate as the storm surge crested to record heights in Manhattan. 

Gawker and The Huffington Post both posted statements through social media noting the outages and promising to work to restore service, while BuzzFeed posted a detailed explainer via its Tumblr page.

According to the BuzzFeed post, the site's media ISP, Datagram (along with Gawker and the Huffington Post and others) experienced serious flooding as a result of Sandy's storm surge, causing wide-scale outages for the well-trafficked news sites. Responding via a text message, Datagram told BuzzFeed “Basement flooded, fuel pump off line – we got people working on it now. 5 feet of water now.”

The Huffington Post managed to restore power in just over an hour, as one of its senior editors confirmed over Twitter.

As of this writing (noon, Tuesday), Gawker Media sites are still offline. BuzzFeed did manage to restore a majority of the site's existing pages through cooperation with the content delivery network Akamai, though publishing capabilities remained down. For a fledgling editorial property like BuzzFeed, breaking news sites like last night's storm are crucial to BuzzFeed's newsroom ethos of non-stop coverage and, undeterred by the outage, the site crafted an emergency set of place holding websites via Tumblr.

The bulk of the night's fast-paced digital coverage, however, came through Twitter (which set up a special curated hashtag page for #sandy), Facebook, and Instagram, which many believe had its defining moment throughout the storm as users uploaded hundreds of thousands of stunning photos of the flooding, power outages and destruction. According to an Instagram spokesperson, the site was uploading 10 photos per second as of 3 p.m. Monday—well before the bulk of the flooding and damage in New York.

But the coverage via social media—most notably Twitter—was not without its serious flaws. As in all major breaking news situations, information moved fast and wasn't always easy to come by. Rumors spread quickly, but as BuzzFeed's John Herrman noted early this morning in a post, Twitter proved to be "very good at one thing: vetting ascertainable facts." Though the dissemination of false information was somewhat rampant throughout the evening, one incorrect Twitter rumor of flooding on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange picked up enough steam that it was eventually reported by the Weather Channel and CNN.

Like most of the false information, the rumor was squashed quickly on social media, illustrating a broader point about the merits of digital journalism. While so much in the world of online publishing is frenetic, sloppy, sensational, and perhaps even more susceptible to the elements than legacy media, the medium's flexibility, speed, and merit-based system is an invaluable tool during hallmark breaking news moments. At its best on platforms like Twitter, the follower economy punishes those who willingly publish false information and those who dedicate themselves to the relentless pursuit of breaking news are rewarded with a wide audience to disseminate news. For publishers, digital platforms are giving media outlets unprecedented flexibility to cover and compete with legacy news. It's something we've been seeing for a while, but never has it been demonstrated so clearly as with the coverage of this monumental storm.