What A Disaster

Nature may have disrupted our lives, but the communication disaster surrounding Tropical Storm Irene was purely man made. By 12 noon on Sunday, Aug. 28, it became clear LIPA, the media and local government all failed the public.

Of course, LIPA gets the lion’s share of the blame, and rightly so. When the utility dusted off a decades old, decentralized restoration plan, it failed to realize what a monumental communication strategy it would need. Not only would LIPA need the manpower and the connectivity to simultaneously monitor decentralized operations across the Island, it would need to create channels for feeding its own news — successes, works in progress, and problems — back to headquarters.

Instead, the new guy at the helm, came forth and announced he had nothing to say, and no way to find out in a timely manner. That’s the moment when media and government should have seized control.

To be fair to Michael Hervey, he’s new at this. And he got clobbered by one seriously angry woman. But let him be a case study for all CEOs on this Island: If communicating is not among your major priorities, if the need for publicly providing leadership and reassurance escapes your attention, then step down. Or, be smart enough to surround yourself with people who get it, before your own personal version of Irene takes hold and takes over.

A media savvy CEO would’ve made the world of a difference in this instance.

Say what you will about former LIPA head Richard Kessel, but the man is a master communicator. And, as all CEOs set the internal culture of a company, LIPA’s former senior management took communication duties with serious intent and obligation. Jumping out of the shower to take a reporter’s call — as opposed to finishing up, drying off and calling back, and possibly missing a deadline — was commonplace.

If Kessel (pictured right) had been there, it would have been a weekend of Kessel on over drive. Always on the radio. Pictured in the newspapers and online sources, giving interviews from sites of devastation — and providing plenty of photo ops, probably in that horizontal-striped polo shirt, bringing Dunkin’ Donuts to working crews, and donning a helmet and going up in a cherry picker, just to convey the image of no detail too small for the person in charge of cleaning up such a mess. Behind him, communication staff would be issuing new statements and, in today’s realm of technological wonders, tweeting, blogging and Facebooking news on a 24/7 basis. Would the power have been restored faster? Hard to say. But communication would have been fast and furious.

Instead, today’s LIPA took to fielding angry calls and, in return, offered sympathy. That’s no strategy. Occasional tweets and Facebook messages illustrated how out of touch the utility — like many local companies here — is with our rapidly changing local news landscape and its impact.

The truth of the matter is, with Newsday weakened by serious cutbacks and so few local reporters left to comb the Island, Hervey had a golden opportunity to feed the media whatever story he wanted. Lord knows there’s not enough experienced reporters around who would have verified the facts during a natural disaster. Thirty years ago, when radio and print reporters roamed our streets and could bear witness to events, companies wouldn’t be able to get away with what I am suggesting. Today, it’s a different ballgame.
Which brings us to the media, which was clearly so reliant on LIPA spoon feeding them information that, in the hours after the storm, we heard plenty of songs on the radio, but little news. In those fleeting moments when some news became available, all news sources — print and radio — referred the public to check web sites. Problem was, most of us were in the dark, with no connectivity to go to websites. Without power, television news is a mute point. WALK and JVC hooked up, which was progress, but they could’ve capitalized on their combined ability to continually deliver news and information to a desperate public. Barnstable streaming News12 — something I had advocated for long ago — offered news to people who were unable to access it any other way.

Long Island has always lacked enough news gatherers, but what’s happened now is that they are using technology they haven’t quite come to grips with. The lack of education of those running newsrooms never shone more brightly than this past week, when they tried to drive an unconnected public to online news sites for necessary information.

While the media should’ve hunted and haunted LIPA into finding ways to get information out faster, it’s puzzling why local government — with their own emergency management formulas — didn’t step in to help. Prior to the storm, politicians were laudably proactive in protecting the public interest. Perhaps after the storm, they realized their emergency communication plans were not as effective as they thought? Like those reverse311 plans, which call the public to alert them of special situations, such as blocked roads and downed trees. Problem? Many are tied to calling only landlines, and less than one in four U.S. households currently has a land line.

What is abundantly clear is this: All of the so-called emergency communication plans on this Island need to be revamped. Why LIPA let a year-old, notification-via-text plan fall by the wayside is unconscionable. But again, not everyone texts nor has a cell phone, so one method of communication is hardly the answer. Recent history, however, underscores the need for the outlying areas of the United States — places such as New Orleans, Hawaii and now, Long Island — to be required to have superior emergency management plans in place, to protect the public.

This is an issue that all of Long Island has a vested in, and it’s paramount to ensuring the success of what Long Island is to become in the future. If you’re interested in change for the better, count me in.

Time is a Four Letter Word

It’s this one decision, to firewall – to put profits ahead of public interest – that makes all other media voices on this island vital in getting the word out and off of Long Island.

Jaci Clement Time PieceIt’s about time. The local landscape has shifted dramatically over the last few years, as we’ve lost many of our long-time leaders due to retirement, economic turmoil and damning paper trails. 

The local media landscape has been time’s victim for quite awhile now, but media – which is always ahead of the curve when it comes to socioeconomic change – has had the advantage of using time to regroup. What’s emerging is a new paradigm, where the size of the media outlet no longer matters. Nor, the size of its audience. Today, it’s becoming clear the future of media is all about engagement. Large media outlets, like large companies, often have problems this: Too many levels of bureaucracy simply bring the concept to a screeching halt. Then the tail begins to wag the dog. From there, things get too unbearable to watch.

The timing is perfect for AOL’s Patch.com to enter the Long Island market. Unlike many areas of the United States, Long Island’s wired from head to toe, making this prime real estate for an internet-only engagement. The premise of Patch – to cover your local school boards and other hyper local goings on – is nothing short of brilliant on an Island where most of your taxes go straight into the schools. And, unlike a local upstart working from scratch, AOL’s got the goods. This island, if they’re smart, can be theirs for the taking.

Long Island Press has used time well, in discovering both its voice and its purpose: bringing to life important stories no other media outlet is covering. It’s the type of reporting that is, thankfully, short on patience for ideas generated from press releases. Long Island Business News continues to prove the size of a newsroom doesn’t matter. What does? Having reporters who know the market, and how it works.

If this was five years ago, the firewalling of Newsday content would have been nothing short of a death sentence for Long Island. The impact of such a decision is just this: It kills the amount of progress this region can make. After all, the public conversation drives public policy. When there is no conversation being heard, policy making doesn’t stop. It simply lacks substance. What’s happened, because of that firewall, Long Island’s biggest daily conversation has been silenced in Albany, Washington, D.C. and the rest of the country.

It’s this one decision, to firewall – to put profits ahead of public interest – that makes all other media voices on this island vital in getting the word out and off of Long Island. It makes television coverage by New York City stations absolutely imperative for anyone off Long Island to remember that one, Long Island does still exist and two, we have stuff to say about what happens to us by policy makers when they’re in session. Long Island’s radio stations could be a big plus here, but local radio, like many of the local community newspapers, seem to be stuck in a moment in which they can’t find their way out.

Timing is everything.

Inside newsrooms, it’s all about time. Print editors taking longer than 10 seconds to make a story decision actually slow down the process of the entire paper. Television, operating on a five-second delay, allows news directors far less luxury than their ink-stained counterparts, as decisions affecting on-air stories must be made within four seconds. Small wonder news is such an imperfect animal. Right now, lots of time and money is being invested to decide if, when and if-ever it’s OK to say “f@*k you” on broadcast television.

This is a sentiment which underscores that time is, in fact, just as important to people outside of a newsroom. Especially in New York. The only variable on the time factor, in this particular case, happens to depend upon where you are in New York.

In Manhattan – where if you look at a stranger for more than one-sixteenth of a second, it’s viewed as a threat – a quick “f@*k you” is the ready retort. In extreme circumstances – someone stole your cab – you’ll hear polysyllabic adjective added to it, which easily — but quickly — bounces off the tongue.

On Long Island, where suburban sprawl has slowed life down a bit, the response is more akin to, “Oh, go f@*k yourself.” Complete with hand gesture, and a look. It’s really something more of a theatrical production but, again, time is on the side of Long Islanders.

Then there’s Brooklyn, where the basic response philosophy is to take it to the extreme. This is to make it tragically clear to the perpetrator not only that a boundary line has been crossed, but to emphasize where the line is, and to not bother approaching it again. Therefore: “F#*k you. And your mother.”

“Time can’t help but affect us all in wild and strange ways, but it’s clear the time has come, across the board and across the Island, to put up or shut up.

Media Malaise

If a local economy falls down and no one is there to report on it, does it make a sound? Jaci Clement from the Fair Media Council ponders the future of Long Island with less media coverage and more at stake than ever.

Ah, the suburbs.

My, my, my. What a mess we’ve got going on here.

To the east, we’re taken by surprise at the once-a-bright-light, now-a-lame-duck county exec situation. To the west we find the most humbling of insults: a control board calling the shots. In between, we suffer Albany’s wrath via crippling budget cuts destined to erode important service programs. Soon, we’ll have riders in need of buses. Hell, right now we have inmates in need of space.

To help keep our minds off that uber-annoying MTA tax and the brand new potty tax, we currently face the threat of skyrocketing property taxes. In short, it’s going to cost more to own the same house that’s now worth less than when you bought it.

Right now, worldwide, Long Island has catapulted into the spotlight for yet another dubious distinction: FBI profilers invited in, to walk the beach at Gilgo.

And it’s only April.

Is this all (OK, save for the serial killer) just a sign of the times? Is every community in this country at such a startling crossroads, or has Long Island’s geography finally undermined its destiny?

It’s easier to get away with everything – including murder – when you’re off the beaten path. Even Crain’s took note of the fact that one of the best places to operate a business fast and loose is Garden City. (It won the honor for being conveniently located near the city, but still far enough away for no one to bother looking after you.)

It’s our geography that enabled our lone daily newspaper to once tout the highest penetration rate of any newspaper in the nation. And it’s our geography that has so insulated Long Island from competition that we have one cable company bearing strong resemblance to a utility.

That geography is also where we always found our strengths, but that doesn’t seem to matter much to anyone anymore. No one’s telling that story. It’s easier, I guess, to stand by and watch things implode.

Industrial Development Agencies (IDA) were once highly visible, both on and off the Island, in their attempts to draw business to the sandbar. And where did all those ad campaigns disappear to? You know the ones, highlighting our white sand beaches and family-friendly downtown shopping areas? The excitement of Belmont racing juxtaposed against the tranquility of the East End’s 40-plus vineyards?

Touting strengths in times of weakness is the fastest way to get back up and running. It not only draws people to you, but it gives those around you reason to stay.

In the end, it’s all about perception. Created by the media, sure, and just as easily destroyed by the same hands. The paradox here is this: Would Long Island be suffering so hard now if there had been enough reporters knocking on enough doors and asking enough of the tough questions?

The court of public opinion will always trump the court of law. Like it or not, what people think matters. It’s not about money, but whether you can open doors with just your name. No one knows that more than fallen politicians.

The Long Island name has long been synonymous with quality, bordering on exclusivity. If you wanted the best schools, the highest quality of life, low crime and abundant amenities, Long Island had what you wanted. Today’s news tells of a different Long Island, one that’s fast becoming unrecognizable, and in need of reinvention. Everyone – including the media, and especially the media – has to be part of the recovery plan.