Crises Have a Way of Bringing a Media Company's Brand Values Into Sharp Focus

From Honest-to-God Journalists to Giddy Sensationalists, a Sandy Roundup

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One thing I was reminded of before, during and after Frankenstorm: In times of crisis, you really find out who you can count on. And I'm not just talking about my New York friends who kindly lent me their couches when I needed a place to stay, thanks to the minor inconvenience (compared to the absolute horrors that many thousands of others endured and continue to endure) of having a multiday power outage in my Manhattan neighborhood. I'm also talking about media, which, when it comes to scary weather, can begin to feel like a necessity right up there with stocks of nonperishable food, water and D batteries.

Credit: Illustration by Kelsey Dake

Looking back, a few thoughts about which media companies came through for us -- and which didn't:

The Journalists With a Capital J
Last Monday afternoon and evening as Sandy approached, and in the days that followed, I was most appreciative of the team of honest-to-God journalists at The New York Times -- both for what they published at and its assorted Sandy-related blogs (with all pay-wall restrictions removed in the spirit of public service), and for what they disseminated through official (@nytimes, @NYTMetro, @thelede, etc.) and personal Twitter accounts. Sober, no-nonsense, fact-based, relevant journalism just when I needed it most.

Most of the trending topics on Twitter before and during Sandy's assault on the East Coast were directly related to the storm -- and I'm happy to say that clicking on those topics (e.g., ConEd, FEMA, Hudson River) was almost always entirely worthwhile. I got lots of breaking news (there were plenty of links to New York Times coverage, I'll note) via Twitter, which I increasingly think of as a meta-media company, along with plenty of heartfelt expressions of concern. People have talked about the concept of online community for ages -- predating even the World Wide Web itself -- and a lot of times it just feels like wishful thinking.

But I'll tell you something: Sitting in my ancient East Village walk-up apartment, cringing as my walls creaked and my windows rattled in time with Sandy's howling winds, I felt a real sense of comfort in community as I scrolled through Twitter.

Like Twitter, the message board and link-sharing site Reddit served as one of the best real-time aggregators of credible information about the storm.

CNN (on TV) et al.
In the age of Twitter and Reddit, I just can't bear to watch the deadening, redundant loop of logo-ified crisis coverage spewed by the cable-news channels anymore. That said, I did appreciate's live-cam stream of the damaged construction crane dangling over Manhattan like the sword of Damocles -- last week's most oddly riveting, meditative and ultimately uneventful reality show.

The Giddy Sensationalists
Gawker couldn't help but grind away in its default snark mode leading up to the big storm, with, for example, a post titled "How Will You Defeat Frankenstorm?" which included lines like "Most people here have resigned themselves to the fact that they and their loved ones soon will be washed out to sea, and just as Apple was beginning to experiment with new, excitingly-sized products (bummer)." If Sandy were just a theoretically terrible storm -- one possibly overhyped -- that sort of bit would be kind of amusing, but the hurricane had already caused more than 50 deaths in the Caribbean when Gawker started chiming in with its storm coverage (and of course the death toll would only rise from there). When Gawker Media properties were forced to post to simplified backup sites after getting knocked offline by the flooding of a shared data center, the tone changed somewhat, but a subtext of giddy sensationalism was still the core expression of Gawker's brand values.

The Non-Business Outsider
On Oct. 29, as Sandy was bearing down on the East Coast, Business Insider ran a post titled "Latest Satellite Picture Of Hurricane Sandy Actually Doesn't Look That Bad." Authored by none other than BI founder Henry Blodget, it began, "Here's a recent satellite composite of Sandy. From a purely cloud perspective, to this non-meteorologist, it actually doesn't look that bad. But meteorologists are still freaking out because it is a huge storm." Yeah, OK, you can shut up now, Henry.

Honestly, on good days, I often have begrudging admiration for the quasi-clever, page-view-whoring, notoriously link-bait-y Business Insider, which defines "business" as "any topic in the known universe" and "insider" as "any overworked staffer who may or may not have more to say about any topic than a person picked at random off the street." But on bad days -- grim days -- I'm a bit less tolerant.

Now, I'm not saying that I'll never again click on any irresistibly stupid Business Insider link, but if and when Henry Blodget gins up a post titled "Here's A Photo Of Hitler That Makes Him Seem Like The Kind Of Guy You Might Want To Grab A Beer With," I hereby promise not to reward him with a click.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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