Superstorm Sandy Spawns Innovative News Experiment

Superstorm Sandy Spawns Innovative News Experiment


Superstorm Sandy not only took dozens of lives and destroyed billions of dollars in property when it swept New York a year ago. It also spotlighted a problem that has long puzzled news media – how to sustain coverage of a complicated story like climate change long after the wind and rain has died down.

But an experimental news site at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism is working to solve that dilemma. The site, AdaptNY, combines social media curation and primary source documentation to create an online conversation about climate change and how New York can adapt to its impacts.

AdaptNY was launched last spring by Interactive Associate Professor A. Adam Glenn. Glenn has had a long-standing interest in the problem of sustained climate coverage going back to 2007, when he was one of the first winners of the Knight News Challenge grants for a proposal to create a citizen journalism-based climate change project in Boulder, Colo.

This time, though, the project was on a far bigger scale, and came in the wake of a natural catastrophe of historic proportion, one that might be just the first in a series of such extreme weather threats. It was clear New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was preparing a massive response to Sandy, Glenn explained, but it was less clear how much of a community voice was being heard as the plan developed.

AdaptNY, conceived as an one-person operation, started simply enough mid-spring, with extensive curation of the climate adaptation discussion via Twitter. A basic WordPress site launched in June, in time to provide deeper curational coverage of Bloomberg’s 438-page June report on how NYC could be made more resilient in the face of coming climate impacts.

The site features a revolving front page that allows Glenn to switch between original content and social media, courtesy of the social curation tool RebelMouse. Original content in the first months came through a partnership and reprint agreement with Gotham Gazette, a pioneering online watchdog journalism platform. In return for using Gotham Gazette’s climate adaptation-related content, AdaptNY got front-page promotional space on the Gotham Gazette site, plus continuous sharing of its social media output, Glenn explained.

The news partnership blossomed over the summer. Glenn led a full-blown investigative project together with Gotham Gazette’s editor and a top writer, plus a team of nearly a dozen past and current CUNY journalism students. Two months of research, surveying, and reporting yielded a multi-part special report that revealed evidence of a serious disconnect between City Hall and New York’s community boards over how to plan for climate resilience. The investigative package of some 10,000 words along with interactive maps was published during the week of Oct. 21, 2013.

Following the AdaptNY reporting on community board criticism, City Hall announced it would reconvene two community advisory task forces on climate resilience, and pledged “broad-based outreach” to some of the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods.

“We were incredibly gratified to have gotten out in front in raising the issue of neighborhoods’ role in planning for climate resilience, and then see that the city’s change in policy followed our reporting,” said Glenn. “We feel like we really moved the ball forward.”

Glen said he hopes the public planning question will receive further attention at an AdaptNY workshop planned for January that will look at how media and communities can foster news and conversation about climate adaptation. The workshop is funded by a research grant from PSC-CUNY.

Another innovative aspect of the AdaptNY project came from the effort to make the most of primary source documentation in order to improve sometimes weak online debate on climate change.

Glenn said he wanted an opportunity not just for users to read documents like the mayor’s report, but to rewrite them. In partnership with DocumentCloud, a highly respected outfit whose online documentation tools have been used by many news organizations, AdaptNY developed a unique public annotation tool for documents on the web.

The public annotation tool became available in July and although first efforts to encourage users to share their comments on the Bloomberg report were unsuccessful, a renewed effort has yielded a partnership for annotations within CUNY. CityAtlas, a web collaboration between the CUNY Insti­tute for Sus­tain­able Cities and Artist As Cit­i­zen, earlier this week contributed some two dozen summary statements as annotations to the Bloomberg document, which Glenn said AdaptNY will disseminate in the coming days.

Glenn maintains the AdaptNY approach is much needed as NYC’s climate resilience mandate is handed off to a new mayor, and City Hall readies itself to spend billions and possibly remake much of the face of the city. But it’s not just NYC that faces these problems, he added. Nationally, many communities are seeing climate change-driven problems of coastal flooding or heatwaves, and are starting to consider how to adapt.

More broadly, he hopes AdaptNY might serve as a model for how local or university-based media can simply, quickly, and inexpensively cover — in a way that involves community voices — what is shaping up to be the story of a generation.