Hurricane Katrina Drives Traffic to Blogs & News Search Engines

    September 6, 2005

Hurricane Katrina made landfall at Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, at approximately 7:10 a.m. EDT on Aug. 29, 2005.

The Class 4 hurricane decimated New Orleans and severely damaged other areas along the U.S. Gulf Coast. Its impact on the traditional news landscape remains to be seen.

Traditional journalists were feeling vulnerable even before the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season got underway. Over the past five years, media companies in the U.S. have cut nearly 72,000 jobs, according to I Want Media. The layoffs, which started in June 2000 and have continued into this summer, are one of the reasons why the mainstream media’s news coverage of Hurricane Katrina appeared to be a day late and a dollar short.

As Richard Chacn, the ombudsman for The Boston Globe, explained on Sunday, Sept. 4, 2005, “Assigning too many people for what might turn out to be a smaller storm is a loss of valuable resources in a time of tightening news budgets.” However, he added, “Not having enough reporters and photographers on scene when tragedy breaks leaves readers feeling underserved.”

When Hurricane Katrina hit, a large number of bloggers and other “citizen journalists” moved quickly to fill this vacuum. This includes remote bloggers, who mobilized to provide much-needed information and relief aid, as well as a few on-the-scene bloggers, who emerged as unique sources of information in an area where electricity, Internet connections and telephone communications have been severely compromised.

According to Intelliseek’s BlogPulse, which analyzes daily posts from 15.6 million blogs, The Irish Trojan blog, written remotely by Brendan Loy from South Bend, Indiana, and Metroblogging New Orleans, written on-the-scene by nine New Orleans-area residents, are the most frequently cited hurricane-related blogs.

When Hurricane Katrina hit, the news search engines also moved quickly to fill the initial vacuum left by mainstream media.

According to BlogPulse, Yahoo News is the second most cited new sources for Katrina-related information, behind only

According to Nielsen//NetRatings, AOL News was one of the 10 fastest growing news and weather sites, jumping 71% from a unique audience of 1.8 million on Aug. 22 to 3.1 million on Aug. 29. By comparison, jumped 44% from 4.8 million on Aug. 22 to 6.9 million on Aug. 29.

And according to AOL News,

On Monday, Aug. 29, page views on AOL News were up 73% over the previous Monday, Aug. 22.

Almost half of the web traffic on AOL news on Wednesday, Aug. 31, was to hurricane articles. While total page views were 10.7 million that day, 5.2 million of these page views were for hurricane

Photos of Hurricane Katrina have now been viewed more than 100 million times on AOL News.

In an email to me over the Labor Day weekend, Lewis D’Vorkin, Vice President, Editor-in-Chief of AOL News & Sports, shared an interesting perspective on the impact of citizen journalists, blogs, and news search engines on the traditional news landscape. (I should disclose that D’Vorkin and I both worked at Ziff-Davis back in the 1990s, and that I’ve held a workshop for the AOL corporate communications department.)

“In a summer marked by London bombings, rising gas prices and record hurricanes, the world is turning to the fastest growing news team – citizen journalists – to get a human perspective through the eyes of those who lived or experienced the news as it unfolds,” he wrote.

D’Vorkin also suggested that I check out AOL News to find out “what we’re hearing from citizens related to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.”

I clicked on See the Photos You Took to look at the pictures that citizens have taken of the devastation from Hurricane Katrina. One citizen commented, “It not only will have an impact on my life but it will also make me take a different outlook on life.”

D’Vorkin stated, “Online news on AOL is becoming the people’s platform offering real-time dialogue.”

The interactive online news experience actually started three years ago with Hurricane Isabel and everything AOL News has been doing since has been an evolution of that experience.

During the 2004 Election, AOL News introduced a number of interactive tools that enabled its members to have their voice heard, hear from other members, and remove the filter of the media and become the person that gets to directly ask questions to lawmakers and other political leaders.

AOL has continued to create new platforms where Internet users can join in and shape the news.

For example, AOL News just expanded its foray into participatory journalism – which it calls Citizen Journalism – by launching the Daily Pulse Blog, a Gas Price Blog, and a Hurricane Relief Blog. If you click on Join in and Shape the News, you will see photos and comments that citizens have been sharing about Hurricane Katrina, gas prices and more.

With hundreds of daily postings, the Daily Pulse Blog demonstrates how actively users want to influence AOL News coverage. Comments on Hurricane Katrina not only serve as feedback shaping how the AOL News programming team approaches the rescue and relief stories, but reader comments also become part of the news report itself, adding firsthand perspectives from storm evacuees and survivors or their worried family members.

Another Citizen Journalist blog is currently tracking rising gas prices across the country. If you click on Pictures at the Pump, you will see the photos that citizens have been sharing along with their comments about gas prices.

“The role of Internet news is evolving as regular, everyday people step up to the online microphone to share, shape and take charge of their stories,” said D’Vorkin.

“While citizen journalism has existed in forms through letters to the editor, man on the street’ interviews and call-in radio or television shows, the widespread penetration of the Web has promoted the citizen journalist to a new stature. With new technology tools in hand, individuals are blogging, sharing photos, uploading videos and podcasting to tell their firsthand accounts of breaking news so that others can better understand. What we did is the future of news, except it’s happening now,” he added.

Even traditional journalists and mainstream media are beginning to acknowledge the important role played by bloggers and other citizen journalists.

A recent study by Euro RSCG and Columbia University found that more than 51% of journalists read blogs regularly and 28% rely on blogs to help in their reporting duties. Journalists use blogs to find story ideas, research and reference facts, find sources, and uncover breaking news or scandals.

Since Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, CNN has received more than 3,000 files by email with hundreds of images and video. “Traditional journalism is the outside looking in,” Mitch Gelman, the executive vice president of, told Information Week on Sept. 1. He added, “Citizen journalism is the inside looking out. In order to get the complete story, it helps to have both points of view.”

And announced on Aug. 31 that it has partnered with blog search company Technorati to offer readers the opportunity to view comments and opinions about its articles and editorials from around the blogosphere.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it may be too soon to know if traditional journalists and mainstream media will be able to rebuild their long-standing relationships with readers, viewers and listeners. But it is now as clear as the satellite imagery of New Orleans available on Google Maps that building stronger relationships with bloggers, citizen journalists, and news search engines should be a part of that effort.

Greg Jarboe is the co-founder and CEO of SEO-PR, which provides search engine optimization and public relations services to Southwest Airlines, Verizon, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO), and a growing list of other organizations. Jarboe is also the editor of SEO-PRs News Blog.