How a Facebook page with 165k likes is keeping the Jersey Shore in the loop

During the uncertainty of Hurricane Irene last year, one Jersey Shore resident decided the area needed real-time news as quickly as possible. So Justin Auciello created Jersey Shore Hurricane News as a Facebook page. This time around, his site proved more useful than ever, gaining over 163,000 likes and having its grassroots reporting referenced all over the news the night Sandy hit.

We spoke with Auciello between posts on the page about Sandy, the devastation in New Jersey and the importance of citizen journalism.

Muck Rack: You’re probably still very busy with the Facebook page.
JA: It’s been non-stop!
Muck Rack: First, are you and your family ok?
JA: Yes. I live in South Seaside Park. I evacuated Sunday night to my parent’s house in New Brunswick. Miraculously, my neighborhood is generally ok. There’s only some minor damage, but I am absolutely saddened for the shore. There was major damage to both piers in Seaside Heights. Communities just to the north along the barrier island were devastated.
Muck Rack: We’re so sorry to hear about all of it. Was everyone able to evacuate or are you still hearing about people being rescued now?
JA: Search and rescue operations are ongoing. Authorities are conducting door-to-door searches.

On posting…
Muck Rack:
It looks like you’re posting several times an hour at this point. Is anyone working on this with you? Or are you all by yourself?
JA: At times I’ve been posting several times a minute. All alone. I started JSHN on August 23, 2011 - in the days before Irene. Since then, it has evolved into a 24/7 news, traffic, and weather news outlet. It’s a crowdsourced platform. People report what is happening around them, and I serve as the filter/curator. I’ve developed hundreds of official sources since last summer, allowing me to fact-check quickly. It operates in real-time. It is especially useful in emergency situations, particularly when people are without power and only have social media via smartphones. I try to cover stories from all angles - as much context as possible in real-time, which is a complex task. what helps is that people report in the thread below the initial report.  Muck Rack: Right now, how many posts are going up a day?
JA: Reports that contributors submit are different. On a regular day, about a couple hundred, not including the reporting within main threads. Some threads can build to dozens of on-the-ground live reports during a major incident within minutes (such as a major fire). During sandy, the engagement and reports/questions/etc. have been through the roof. I’d say about a hundred every 15 minutes. My reports are, on average, about three an hour. I also do a daily sunrise/sunset (from that day, usually, submitted by people throughout NJ). But within those reports, there could be many comments, depending on the story.
Muck Rack: Do you have final approval on submissions before they go up?
JA: Unfortunately, no. That’s the filtering role. Nothing gets reported on the main feed unless it has been confirmed either officially or sources, unless of course I can get a photo and multiple conformation from independent parties. However, it’s extremely rare to see an utter false report. I think because Facebook is “public” - in the sense that people are generally identified by their real names — they are very weary. In addition, in the event that a report is false, it would get exposed quickly by someone else. I think it’s a testament to citizen journalism that mainstream media monitors JSHN for information. Sometimes we’ll have the full story before a long-form report even runs. People want info in real-time.

JSHN and the news outlets…
Muck Rack: Have any of the news outlets actually reached out to you? or do you know if they’re using your site as well?
JA: Mainstream media reporters have told me that they consider JSHN to be a “breaking news wire” in NJ - it’s a testament to citizen journalism and the power of mobile devices. Reports have been attributed to JSHN by mainstream outlets on numerous occasions.
Muck Rack: What about taking it to a blog? Do you think that would hinder the commenting?
JA: That’s part of the issue. I like Facebook because it facilitates reporting. And it’s all short-form reporting in real-time, so a blog would be difficult. Just to add, this isn’t my full-time job. I’m an urban planner. Since JSHN is only on social media, there is no monetization, although I am constantly looking for ways to raise money. I’ve been selling t-shirts, hoodies, etc, but sales have been poor. I’ve received some donations from contributors via Paypal.
Muck Rack: Have you had good response so far?
JA: A few thousand dollars. I’m raising money to hopefully develop mobile apps. Someone has volunteered her time to build an Android app, and that’s ongoing. I’d like to duplicate the reporting experience mobile.

When Sandy hit…
Muck Rack: During Sandy, what are some of the major announcements or breakthroughs JSHN has made so far?
JA: We’ve managed to link up people and get people rescued. The New Jersey Office of Emergency Management has been monitoring the page, and I’ve been asking people to post where they are trapped. People have been reporting locations via mobile devices and were rescued. Their family/friends have been reporting them as well in cases without mobile power. We’ve managed to get supplies to fire departments that needed them quickly. I got a message from the Union Beach Fire Department seeking a generator. I posted the request, and within 10 minutes, the Tinton Falls Fire Department was on its way north on the Garden State Parkway with the generator.
    With the photos shared, people have been able to assess damage to their neighborhoods, good or bad. It’s also a humanitarian platform linking up people with shelter information, who needs, what, where, etc. It’s also a virtual support group, especially during the storm. I was covering the storm’s wrath in real-time, asking people to report what was happening around them. People were also submitting videos and photos as it was happening. JSHN had about 66,000 likes last week — jumped up to almost 160,000 now, which means more reporters. The “sharing” aspect allows real-time reports to spread quickly.
    Thankfully, due to extensive, non-stop fact-checking, no rumors spread. I’ve been doing “rumor controls” to kill any rumors that were circulating. Instead of people posting them on the main wall as the storm was evolving and now, I asked people to send me the rumors privately to allow me to check them. That kept them out of public view. Another important aspect is asking people to tell us where we can find ice, water, food, generators, etc. I did this last year during Irene, and it worked well. People love it because not only are they a part of the reporting team, but because they’re also getting real-time information - especially important when they’re without power.

Going forward…
Muck Rack:
Do you have any other plans for your page in the immediate future?
JA: It’s very time consuming for me. Although I have an enormous team of citizen reporters, the filtering, fact-checking, research, etc. is very time consuming, considering that I have a full-time job in addition. Without sufficient funds and a staff, it’s going to be difficult to continue this forever.
  On behalf of our nearly 160,000 contributors at JSHN, we are very proud to have built a respected real-time citizen journalism platform. This is the future, especially with smartphones growing in popularity everyday. People not only want news in real-time, but they also want to help report the news.
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    my interview with one man doing a great thing for a very devastated region
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