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Irene brings rain, flooding and end of news as we know it [#irene]

I just want to be clear about what I'm writing about here.  There are people out there who tell great stories--who make me think about the world in different ways and those who bring light to new and interesting information that I wouldn't have known about.  These are really great journalists and they'll be around for a long time, because we will always need great storytellers and tenacious investigators.

On the other hand, you have people paid to tell me more about what's going on outside my window--reporters, if you will.  These people, and the industry behind them, failed this weekend.

On June 17, 1994, the whole country was interrupted by broadcast news—us New Yorkers were watching Patrick Ewing and the Knicks in the NBA Finals.   It was the beginning of the biggest media spectacle we had ever seen.  All that needs to be mentioned is “White Bronco” and anyone born on the other side of the 1980’s knows what is being referred to.  National news of a single celebrity wanted for murder taking cops on a slow speed chase dominated the airwaves. 

Whether or not we wanted to watch, there was nothing else on.  We didn’t have a choice.  There were no other sources, no other feeds, so we turned out and got sucked in.  Never had their been so much coverage of something that impacted the life of the average American so little.  That was the day that mainstream, broadcast media decided it was in the entertainment industry—and that ratings and the “production” mattered more than the delivery of relevant information.  It was the start of a 17 year journey through countless spectacle after spectacle, each preying on the worst and weakest parts of us—our capacities for fear, gawking, superficiality, and misplaced senses of righteousness.  We watched trials, murders, wars, terrorism, heartbreaks, the rise and fall of D-list celebrities—all while we were told this was important.  We had to pay attention because these were the events of the day, and if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be in the know.  We didn’t want to “miss out”, because the news was going to tell you about the danger lurking in your house that could kill your kids—at 11 after the movie. 

I never liked being force fed the national car accident of the day, and kept waiting for the cycle to break. 

This weekend, we watched again—for hours and hours—expecting the news to inform us—to convey relevent facts, well researched predictions, and timely reports—about Hurricane Irene.  The news broadcasted, for sure, and we watched—but we didn’t actually get informed. 

I’m ready to say that this weekend was the last straw—the peak of mainstream media news coverage.  It couldn’t have been more obvious that mainsteam news had completely and utterly failed.  By overdramatizing the leadup and missing the real threats presented by the storm—the flooding—the news media dropped the ball on its responsibility to inform its audience. 

This was the “cry wolf” moment for the news, and from here on in, we will be tuning out.  Forget new business models for journalism.  It’s done.  Over. 

Remember the covenant that the music industry used to have with the consumer?   We’ll scour the earth for the best talent and give it to you so you don’t have to listen to every last wannabe band—and charge you a price for that quality filter and discovery mechanism.  When the industry failed to hold up it’s end of that bargain—instead shoving crappy one-hit wonders down the channel—it was only a matter of time before technology enabled consumers to go around them, and the industry collapsed. 

Seven years ago, we bemoaned the end of the mainstream media when blogs grew in popularity, but that was premature.  Blogs were just a way for us to comment about the mainstream.  We still needed direct sources at the core.  Today, news broke of Apple’s plans to go to work on changing our TV experience—actually releasing a digital television with iOS built in.  This is only the beginning.  From now on, we’re going to be connecting right to direct sources ourselves—to government newsfeeds and to citizens broadcasting their own local experiences right from the scene—right to our TVs.  When it becomes just as easy to click the remote and go to a direct data feed as it is to watch a talking anchor head, the middlemen selling stories are in trouble.  When there was an earthquake in New York last week, it was confirmed for me immediately by other people on twitter who lived in the city, and someone who thought quickly enough to post a link directly to accurate USGS data—well before any news outlet caught anything.  At the end of the day, all you have are direct sources and official reports. Those are coming online fast.  Governments are getting online and making every piece of data they have into a feed.  Individuals already have discoverable feeds on their own.

The same way the filesharers revolted against the music industry—we will see society’s backlash against being scared into watching.  Here in NYC, we spent almost a whole 24 hours on the couch in advance of the actual arrival of the storm waiting for something to happen—waiting for the brimstone.  Instead, we got hours and hours of nothing.  Even the field reporters seemed frustrated by the utter lack of carnage to cover around the city.  We witnessed live shot after live shot of lone reporters either covering nothing at all—the lack of rain, wind, damage—or featuring obvious acts of human stupidity.  There were kayakers off Staten Island that had to be rescued, beach front residents that didn’t want to evacuate.  Occasionally, you’d get the store owner torn right out of a Spike Lee movie—complete with white tank top, chest hair, and the requisite story of how he’d been in that location for 30 years and was tougher than any storm.  Beaches that had flooded before in heavy rains were flooding again.

I kept thinking, “Where is the actual news?” 

The real news—the information I needed, cared about, and found relevant—as it turned out, was on the internet.  The internet was pretty much the only way to find out whether you had to be evacuated.  I didn’t even know about all the flood zones until I found the online maps.  I found power outage maps powered by Bing map APIs and real data feeds.  I found enough photos of mudslides across railroad tracks and flooded stations taken by the MTA itself to make it obvious that Monday’s commute was going to be hellish for anyone who couldn’t bike or walk to work.  And what were the reporters doing?  Asking each other when the MTA might be willing to give a “Guesstimate” and suggesting that the PATH trains make for a good subway alternative for the few blocks where they go up 6th ave. 

I also had this handy map.  At any given time, I could check out where the hurricane was and what the winds were like, with no spray tanned Lee Goldberg hogging up the airwaves.

And then there were the tweets.  Twitter was ablaze with a constant stream of commentary, firsthand reports, tips, discussion, and yes, irreverent humor.  It was  a friend on Twitter that reminded me that my mobile data feed might go out before cell service would, and that switching from Google Voice to regular SMS for texts might be a good idea.  Useful!  Twitter kept me informed by the right sources, in good spirits, and instilled a sense of community with others nearby—even if I couldn’t reach them by subway.  What was fascinating to me was watching reporters who were friends waffle back and forth between being conveyers of news and first hand fellow experiencers of it.  Where they “on duty” or just one of us? 

It was quite a contrast to sitting alone—and feeling alone—on 9/11.  Ten years ago, we didn’t have a community online to turn to the way we do know.  In the ten years since the worst tragedy the city has ever seen—an event intended to tear our society apart—we used technology to invent more ways to bring us together than ever before.   

The more and more television and major media outlets became a spectical—like a child acting out to try to get attention—the more I turned to the internet for information.  The mainstream news coverage was a mockery—an over-the-top little production of community theater quality that we had seen so many times before (hilarious wind-blown reporters from hurricanes past right here).  I got more useful reports from Dennis Crowley than from the “CNN guy standing in water when he could be standing on the pier right next to him,” as Jeff Jarvis pointed out

I don’t want to take anything away from the army of reporters who toiled away for 12-24 hour stretches on location.  They were doing their jobs—but even they seemed to grow weary of their own coverage.   Inland flooding, as it turned out, was the real danger.  Yet, these crews were originally dispatched to waterfronts—many of which typically flooded several times a year—seemingly in an effort to get some gripping footage. 

Was it really a surprise to anyone that the Long Beach lifeguard house—a wood framed building on a beach—floated off its foundation?  The anchor commented, “I’m worried about that, because there’s nothing holding that building together.”   I was worried about the people who thought this was a good idea to put it right back where it was after the last time this happened—yup, this wasn’t the first time flood water carried this place away. 

What I’m not worried about is where I’m going to get information should Eyewitness News become economically non-viable and disappear—especially if they fail to provide relevancy and keep me informed.

The outlets we trusted completely missed out on telling us what we actually should have been worried about: small, inland rivers and lakes in suburban towns north and west of the city.  That’s where the worst flooding and damage occurred, and where people were taken most by surprise, like the 20 year old New Jersey girl who drowned in her car early Sunday morning after being overtaken by floodwaters from a local creek.  Maybe if someone had done some thoughtful research and tried to figure out the story that wasn’t being told, warnings to residents about local inland waterways might have come earlier. 

Jeff Jarvis confronts the issue head on:

“So the question the journalists should ask is how they can add value to [all the new sources of direct information]. That is the the question must ask constantly now that information can be exchanged so easily and instantly from officials to citizens, data sources to users, and witnesses to witnesses. It’s an everyday question, not just one for emergencies.

Journalists don’t add value by repeating themselves endlessly, but standing in front of random but ultimately uninformative sites where their cameras and trucks happen to be set up (or worse, in the water), by alarming more than informing people.”  

He adds:

“storms of another sort are still overcoming Syria and Libya, both of which might as well not exist on supposed news networks today. Is that journalism?”

This weekend, the clear answer was “no”. 

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