Chase readers, not storms: What we learned from Irma about reporting in a crisis

A little more than a year ago, Hurricane Irma was bearing down on South Florida as a Category 4 monster. The New Tropic had three editorial staff members: me (the director), one reporter, and one part-time editorial fellow. We had to be pretty particular about where we chose to throw our bantamweight, and as the storm bore down on our city, we had to answer a couple critical questions: What role does a small but mighty local news startup play in a crisis moment like this one? What does community-driven reporting, which is at the core of WhereBy.Us, look like when your city is about to get pummeled? What does it look like in the aftermath, as the city picks up the pieces? (When Irma hit us, it was a mere Category 2, but it still brought Miami to its knees.)

An image of Irma from space, when it was at its strongest, and headed straight for South Florida. (NASA / Flickr Creative Commons)

As Florence continues its slow grind over the Carolinas, we’ve been thinking a lot about that. Here are 10 things we learned from Irma:

Feel your emotions about the storm. Journalists like to say things like, “You’ve just got to squash your emotions and get the job done” when people ask how they cover crises. But stripping the human out of your storm experience makes it a lot harder to keep humans at the center of your reporting. Pay attention to where your mind is going when you have a second to breathe. Are you worrying about flooding coming into your home? Are you wondering how to make the call on whether to evacuate? Notice that. You are going through this storm with your readers, and if you have those questions, they probably do too. On a related note: embrace the “we.” We’ve got this. We’re all in this together. Yes, we ate all our hurricane snacks last night too.

Us and all of Miami two days before the hurricane actually hit.

Let readers, not meteorologists, drive your reporting. The level of detail and frequency at which meteorologists share information is overwhelming for the average person just trying to keep their homes and loved ones safe. As reporters, you should be keeping tabs on the storm updates, yes, but you should be spending as much time, maybe more, on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and NextDoor, where locals will be spending their spare moments waiting in line for gas or taking a break from putting up shutters. What questions are they posting again and again? What are people expressing anxiety about? What misinformation can you debunk? At WhereBy.Us, the time peg of when we act is when a reader needs the information, not when the information is released or when the event happens. Listening carefully can help you focus your effort on utility rather than trying to keep apace with other information sources.

The coverage TNT is providing is a much-needed balance to the fear-mongering happening on television. The usefulness of what you are reporting is welcomed and refreshing. When I feel the panic and fear rising, your emails and posts are like lifelines to greater balance. Please keep up the good work! Stay safe.
— A New Tropic reader in reply to one of our newsletters

Decode the jargon. The cone of uncertainty. Storm surge. Hurricane watch. Hurricane warning. Flood zone. Sheltering in place. If you can’t confidently explain what terms like these mean for your actual safety, neither can most readers. Keep using the expert terminology, but define it, too. (Why not abandon it entirely? Because other news outlets will still be using it, and you’ll want readers to be able to follow them, too.)

Municipal websites are generally terrible. As journalists, we spend years learning how to navigate local government websites. While it’s effortless for us, it’s not to most people — especially when they’re on their phone in line at the grocery store and they’re trying to find out whether the storm surge will reach their home but they can only do so with a color-coded interactive map that only works if you use a weird slider tool to input the expected hurricane wind speed, and it keeps freezing because it’s not mobile-friendly. (Yes, true story, and yes, the screaming in our head at that moment sounded like a run-on sentence.)

And yet, that’s where people must go for essential life-saving information like evacuation zones, shelter locations, and sandbag or water distribution points. Bigger players often dedicate resources to redesigning these tools to be more user friendly, but sometimes the best thing you can do is explain to people how to use the tools their government has built for them, or where to easily find the information they need.

Don’t make your readers come to you. A crisis moment is not the time for a form that can only be hosted on your website. Be where your readers are — Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, NextDoor — and jump into the comments with advice. As Irma was approaching, we made social cards for Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter that asked people what questions they had.

One member of our team set about answering them right there on whatever social platform they were asked, while another scraped the most commonly recurring questions and answers into a static post that could live on our site and be shared (and updated and resurfaced for the next time a hurricane comes our way). Readers jumped in and answered for us sometimes, and the comment threads became short-term community forums.

Reassure your community that you have their back, and they can stop obsessively checking the news. The breathless reporting in the buildup to a storm is unnecessarily anxiety-inducing. Hurricanes are slow, even when they’re “fast-moving.” But media outlets default to pumping out a constant stream of information in a crisis moment like this, often shifting to conjecture and worst-case scenarios because there is little new or substantive information to add. You can serve as a filter for your readers, and let them know when something happens that they need to pay attention to. Discrete things like newsletters are clutch in this moment. If you can give them a reprieve from obsessively refreshing the Weather Channel homepage or keeping the local TV station on at top volume, you become a helpful friend rather than another source of anxiety.

Be open about your own situation. In the lead-up to Irma, The New Tropic’s work was produced from the following places, among others: our coworking space, the backseat of a car driving down I-95 to get back to Miami before the storm, abuela’s house (because she refused to leave), and Washington (both D.C. and the state). Be honest about that. You might all lose power. You might all lose Internet. You might have to write the entire newsletter on your iPhone. Thank readers for bearing with you as you go through the storm just like them. (In our case, others in the company evacuated outside the state took on production load as those who stayed got knocked offline. We also got an assist from our sister publication, The Evergrey.)

Your business team can get in on this too. At WhereBy.Us, the editorial team isn’t the only part of the company expected to be responsive to the community. As Irma bore down, our business and creative teams pressed pause on all advertisements and client work that was scheduled to be published, and instead offered up newsletter ad spots free of charge to any hurricane preparation/recovery initiatives. A month after Irma, we sketched out a company-wide emergency plan that laid out thresholds for making decisions like this.

Give everyone something to laugh at. People are nervous, and hurricanes can be an agonizing waiting game. Sometimes, people just need a hurricane meme or 10 to break the tension for a few minutes.

Stay focused on recovery after the storm. It took weeks to recover from Irma. Gathering up downed trees, sweating through nights without power, and worrying about their elderly loved ones left everyone exhausted and emotionally drained. And, recovery doesn’t drive ratings or traffic as well as build-up, so there are a lot of stories in the community that lack the attention they deserve. After Irma, we reached out to many community groups and nonprofits to help users understand how to help the city get back on its feet. Let your reporting remain simple and actionable for awhile. Now is not the time for the deep dives. Now is the time to help people pick up the pieces and give them ways to help others.

We’re sitting here in Miami sending all the good vibes to journalists in the Carolinas and across the east coast, especially in small newsrooms with dwindling resources. But what we learned from Irma is that you can do great work and be a valuable resource to your community (and even to your own colleagues), no matter your size.

Stay safe, stay hydrated, and remember that readers will appreciate you being in the fight with them. You can find the guide we produced during Hurricane Irma here.