One big benefit of the social web: Journalism emerges wherever it is needed

Media-industry watchers (including us) often tend to focus on how the web and social tools are disrupting existing forms of media and journalism by competing with them, or offering alternatives to traditional outlets and voices. But the democratization of both content production and distribution that was brought about by the social web can be even more powerful when it helps to fill in the gaps where traditional media doesn’t go — either because it doesn’t want to, or because it can’t.

Turkey is one example of that phenomenon at work: citizen journalism of many different kinds became extremely important as a source of unbiased reporting during the recent demonstrations against the government there, in large part because the local media weren’t doing it.

Stepping in to fill a gap

Another good example of this a little closer to home is a one-man operation called Jersey Shore Hurricane News, which was recently profiled by the Nieman Journalism Lab. Much like the celebrated British blogger known as Brown Moses — who transformed himself from an unemployed accountant into a crucial source of information about weapons being used by terrorists in Syria — this New Jersey site is the work of one man with little or no background in media or journalism who felt compelled to be of service.

“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.”

Jersey Shore fire

As Nieman writer Caroline O’Donovan describes, Auciello started posting photos and information about hurricanes affecting the Jersey Shore on Facebook, and the page has gradually developed a devoted following of more than 200,000 people. An urban planner and consultant, Auciello said that he enjoyed the interaction with residents of the region — whom he asked for photos and news submissions after he broadened the site to include news about things other than just hurricanes — and they came to rely on him.

Serve the community’s needs

What I find fascinating is that Auciello didn’t set out to create a new-media entity, or to compete with existing media providers: he saw a need that wasn’t being filled by existing outlets like the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New Jersey Network, and he chose to contribute his efforts to the community. All of this is in his spare time, for no pay. And he is as concerned about verification and reporting the truth as any professional journalist — if not more so — saying:

“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.”

At this point, according to the Nieman Lab, the Jersey Shore Hurricane News relies on Facebook for distribution and brings in zero revenue, although Auciello has received a grant from a New Jersey recovery fund set up to help the area rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, and he has been thanked by the White House for his service to the community. He is trying to expand his media operation through a partnership with a local public-radio station and also thinking about moving to the web instead of relying on Facebook.

Like Joey Coleman, who set up his own community-funded reporting operation in a small town in Ontario, Canada because he thought it wasn’t being well served, Auciello is a great example of someone who saw a need and decided to fill it — and thanks to the web and digital media, was able to do so. Perhaps this truly is a “golden age for journalism,” as some have argued.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of On The Pier Photography and Flickr user Christian Scholz