How NY1 won the Irene-hits-New York story, and what national cable news could learn from them
Somewhere around midmorning on the day Hurricane Irene landed in New York City, I switched from NY1 to CNN. This was a mistake.
Things had been calming down in the city, and I wanted to see if CNN was already covering stuff happening with the storm north of New York. What I saw was a reporter stationed on Long Beach, on Long Island's south shore just one sandbar east of the Rockaways, where NY1 had just completed an intense bout of reporting and from which they were now broadcasting aftermath and cleanup shots.
The CNN reporter was all drama, making a show of holding onto his earpiece or mouthpiece or whatever, and basically incomprehesible. Behind him people promenaded along the boardwalk, almost mockingly. A red bar across the bottom with maddeningly fast CNN-style text floating across it read: "HUDSON AND EAST RIVERS OVERFLOWING, THREATENING MANHATTAN."
We'd already been through this on NY1. John Davitt, NY1's earnest, unexcitable meteorologist, had pointed out that the eye of the storm had passed the southern shores; that in lower Manhattan, measurements had shown the water levels around the seawall stabilizing; that the tide was out. It had been time to direct our attention to the north shore, where the high tide was three hours later. Footage of rough sea and potential flooding areas had been aired already, followed by the sea calming and floods receding.
I switched back to NY1 fast.
I wasn't the only one going through this. My Twitter feed was full of people talking about what was wrong with what they were seeing on TV. Lots of the outrage was ranty and unspecific: The Media likes to scare us, or The Media hadn't quite assessed the situation accurately in advance. Some of it was more precise, and inarguable: Certain cable outlets had, pathetically, continued to hype the hurricane's arrival in New York even after it became clear that it was a mere tropical storm, as a means of matching real-life events up to their earlier marketing.
Most of the criticism described what was going on with the large cable-television networks and at the local network affiliates. The message, once you got past the pronouncements about the ills of American media, was that in terms of their ability to cover this major weather story, they stank. But in some precincts an exception was made for NY1, which not only didn't stink, or pander, or panic, but had actually managed the neat trick of getting the best footage of the storm and contextualizing it accurately and usefully throughout.
For my part, I came out of Irene feeling, for the first time, that a local television news outfit had been my only real essential source of information, beating out the Web and making an utter mockery of the ratings-grubbing hysterics at CNN, MSNBC and Fox (which studded its Irene coverage with a debate over atheism vs. Christianity and the correct point of view about disasters, and some arguments about global warming).
I walked out onto my street, after NY1 kind of suggested it was probably finally OK to do so, to take a break; I certainly needed it less than they did.
"I'M FINE," SAID PAT KIERNAN, WHO IS ALSO A BIT OF A CULT FIGURE and Twitter celebrity, as he was coming off some 36 hours of co-anchoring Hurricane Irene coverage with colleague Kristen Shaughnessy, with not much more than a few hours of sleep in a nearby hotel to punctuate the campaign.
"Not a lot of sleep over the last three days because I flew here from Canada in a hurry to be here for Saturday morning and just barely got here," Kiernan said.
I told him I thought NY1 had been a completely different Hurricane Irene experience from the one you got from other cable news outlets, which acted as if New York was about to sink into the Atlantic Ocean, and even from the New York Times' website, which temporarily lifted a paywall to allow us to read the Hurricane Irene coverage as a public service but covered it as a national story, subsuming the New York story into a great big constantly updated lede-all about America.
I told Kiernan that I shared with lots of people I was reading on Twitter and on various liveblogs the sense that a hysteria had set in on the 24-hour cable-news cycle.
"But it's such a tricky balance on these stories, because you have to have a sense of urgency on these stories," he said. "Particularly if your message is gonna help people to get out of harm's way, but you can't be hysterical about it, or at least you shouldn't be hysterical about it, and the most important thing we can do is to try as much as we can to give context to what we're saying."
At this point, Mayor Michael Bloomberg had delivered an address from One Police Plaza that was all about assessing damage, and about how quickly he could get us all back to work.
"I mean the point I've been making repeatedly over much of the last two hours is, we keep putting up these pictures of fallen trees; that doesn't mean that every tree in New York has fallen," Kiernan said. "When we go out looking for news, a fallen tree is news and a standing tree isn't, but it's important to not imply through pictures that you choose that the entire city is impassable."
Sometime pretty early in the morning Kiernan and Shaughnessy went to Rocco Vertuccio, the Brooklyn native who I got to know as the anchor of the limited-distribution special report, Your Queens News Now, that is part of the cycle of the morning news where I live, in Astoria.
Vertuccio was standing in a parking lot adjacent to the boardwalk at Rockaway Beach at Beach 94th Street. There was water in the street beneath him but, more alarmingly, he pointed to the boardwalk, where a large structure that used to separate the beach from the street had broken down.
I'm familiar with that entrance to the boardwalk; I saw a gaping hole where there used to be turf, and ocean water rushing through in periodic waves.
Kiernan and Shaughnessy went back and forth between that shot and another of Tara Lynn Wagner at South Street in Lower Manhattan, where a fence along the East River meant for observing the water, and the steps leading up from it to the street, were rapidly going underwater.
As I was watching this, I started to freak out a little, and so, I thought, did Pat and Kristen.
"I will say that at about 6 a.m., I probably lightened it up one notch too much?" Kiernan said to me later. "And then, we sorta started getting some better forecasting on the storm surge about an hour later and I think I dialed it back to the serious—it hadn't been comedy or anything like that but I was conscious at about 7 that we might have lightened the tone to where people would think OK, it's alright for me to go out now, and we really wanted to see what was happening with that storm surge, so coming up around 7, 8 o'clock we turned the dial to a little more serious because we don't want to complicate the situation to lead people to go outside or get in their cars so, that was probably the one point in the story where, in consultation with the newsroom, we felt there was maybe a slight adjustment in tone that we needed. Because I think I personally erred in wanting to be able to say 'we're through the worst of it,' and it looked at 6 a.m. like the rain had passed and the rain was slowing down a bit, but there was still that other storm-surge high-tide thing sneaking up on us and I probably jumped the gun a little bit."
One thing that helped was that the meteorologist on duty was John Davitt.
Davitt had been politic: The images we were seeing were very powerful, and it was unlikely that anyone had seen anything much like that in a long time. It could be serious. And when Davitt believes a weather condition might be serious, you believe him.
"John is absolutely levelheaded and super-knowledgeable on this stuff, and we rehearse almost nothing in those hours of conversation with John," Kiernan said. "Whatever I throw at him, he either has the answer or puts me off until he can get it. But it's not just a strict meteorological discussion, it's a whole larger scientific thing of how do these rivers interact with each other."
And what he has to say has a lot to do with his knowledge of this city.
"It's hard to fully describe the depth of his knowledge," Kiernan said, "but it's not just confined to the weather. It's so much about the geography of New York City and how all of it plays into this, and you can just always go to him and know that he's got something to contribute that the viewer will find useful."
Like the New York Bight. That's the triangle created by the roughly north-south Atlantic coastline south of New York City and the quite thoroughly east-west Atlantic coastline north of there, created by the curve in the coastline and the giant barrier of Long Island. At the fulcrum of this is New York Harbor.
"We talked about the bight, B-I-G-H-T, the New York Bight? Because, I hadn't heard that term before just then, and then he explains it to us that, there is this L shape or V shape that all this water is funneling into because it's familiar, it's something we can all relate to. You used a funnel in your science class and you know that the water can't come out as quickly as it goes in," he said.
That's what was creating the increased storm-surge potential in Lower Manhattan that Davitt was presently, calmly, hoping would not come too soon. The video he was getting in from Wagner and Vertuccio especially was making him wonder a bit; but mostly, he was concerned with data he was getting from the people who measure the depth of the water at the Battery. He'd be back to tell us what we were seeing.
"The overall tone is governed before you ever get into the broadcast," Kiernan said. "Which is that our senior management likes—you know, set by our vice president and general manager Steve Paulus, he's the one who makes it clear that we are a non-sensational newsroom with an absolute mandate that we are to deliver balanced and accurate information to New York City. We benefit from not having all the other geographic jurisdictions, that we don't have to look for the height of the waves on the Jersey shore—but we have probably a more measured tone than much of the industry. We know going in that that's the tone we're trying to achieve. I am 100 percent in alignment on that. That's one of the reasons I like working here is because that's how it should be done."
That is, someone has to take all this raw data, from the field reporters, from the scientists and the meteorologist, from the city agencies, and measure it all out and create a report that's not sensational.
"So from the beginning it's that that's how we want to do the story and it really just becomes a question of how can we execute on that and that's where all those variables come into play," he said. "And it's very easy to go off the track a bit and realize that you're overplaying something or underplaying something, that's the kind of correction that goes on in the morning during the broadcast and but there aren't extensive consultations because we're on the air. I mean there is time for a quick message in the ear—"
"Like, 'Shut up,'" I said.
Kiernan laughed, hard.
"Right, yes, or for me to send a quick email [to the reporter in the field] that says 'This is what we want to see up here' but you can't stop the broadcast and have a newsroom meeting about whether you want to emphasize this or that."
VERTUCCIO HAD ARRIVED AT THE STATION'S MAKESHIFT ROCKAWAY bureau maybe a hundred yards from where the Rockaway seawall broke down at around 4 a.m. Saturday morning to begin his shift.
Robert Hardt, Jr., the station's political director, has lived there for 13 years, in a big white Victorian house with a wraparound porch. It's a bit of a gathering place for journalists and political types and Columbia graduates of a certain vintage, when Hardt is on hand to entertain them and not away at the races or upstate at some upstate opera festival. (I've been a guest there, and he writes for this site about opera and horse-racing.) So it was natural that the station, wary of sending an expensive truck to a place that might well flood beyond the reach of bridges, should station its reporters there to report on one of the city's most vulnerable seashores.
Especially since they recently acquired a Dejero.
"It's basically a truck in a suitcase," Hardt explained to me about midday Sunday on the phone as he surveyed the damage to his beloved boardwalk. "And what it means is I can go live anywhere I can get a signal.
"I could be on the boardwalk, I could be at your apartment and we could go live from your apartment. It's a crazy, crazy suitcase. It looks like the nuclear suitcase. You could definitely not get on the plane with this suitcase. It's comically like something out of a kids' movie, it looks so funny."
With the Dejero instead of a truck, Vertuccio and his cameraman partner, Lawrence Roman, could experiment a bit with how close they could get to the water without worrying about the "throw," or the line between the satellite truck and the reporter. They wouldn't have to worry about anything but getting a 3G connection or a cell-phone connection to transmit instant HD-quality video and sound to the anchors, either.
But there was some experimentation involved.
For instance, the Dejero is not waterproof. Keeping it sheltered during constant driving rain presented difficulties. At one point they thought, could they get the Dejero in a car that could pull up near where Vertuccio was reporting from and get the picture through the windshield? Would that work better?
"The things you run into on television are just crazy logistical difficulties," Kiernan said. "Like there was one point at which [Vertuccio] was telling me about the breach in the seawall, but I couldn't see it because the cameraman was inside a car trying to keep the camera dry, and there was a blindspot, and it was right where the seawall was?
"These are the kinds of things that are sometimes apparent to the viewers and other times are only apparent to us," he said.
"I think Rocco kind of took that personally and he like took that suitcase to the parking lot to get closer and be like, 'Look Pat, it's for real here,'" Hardt said.