Sandy Closed a Door; Websites Opened a Window

PHOTO: An emergency vehicle drives on a flooded street in Little Ferry, N.J. in the wake of superstorm Sandy on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Sandy caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses.

(Mike Groll/AP Photo)

As Hurricane Sandy whipped across the East Coast early this week, it pulled the plug on a few major websites that were trying to cover the storm. The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Gawker all crashed temporarily as a result of Sandy, and other sites struggling to remain online were slower to update than usual.

But did it even matter?

An event like Sandy again demonstrates that today's audience waits for no website. So even when several major sites go down, it's almost irrelevant because the news doesn't stop. It's just where you get it that shifts. And unlike before, the sites that went down know this. That's why they headed to the nearest online outlet and set up shop.

But that's what technology does. It changes expectations. Just five years ago, if The New York Times website had gone down, it would not have been the norm to move any part of it onto another platform, social or otherwise. Times readers would have been stuck with their hands in their pockets.

Today, "my server got flooded by a history-making storm" doesn't even count as an excuse. So when three big sites crash — the combined pageviews are about 70 million uniques a month — they have to be nimble. And they really were.

Buzzfeed used their main Tumblr page, and directed people to six other vertical tumblrs. The Huffington Post created a blogging site on AOL for breaking news and used Tumblr, too. Gawker created an updates page on Tumblr as well. All three already have a huge presence on Twitter and Facebook, so that wasn't a leap. Then Buzzfeed did something unheard of. Its developers essentially moved the Buzzfeed site onto Amazon's cloud so that they could keep publishing. That's sort of like building a home in a few days. And by the way, what these various sites did was all done in under 24 hours.

Yes, great technology made this possible, but it's the reader's relationship with the web that made it necessary. The Huffington Post pointed out the high stakes from a media company perspective in a post describing how it moved operations to a Tumblr blog after the data centers it depends on flooded:

"For companies who rely on those servers, the stakes were high. Every hour their website was offline posed an increased risk that they will lose customers or readers, said Philip Jan Rothstein, a consultant who helps companies manage business risk in disasters.

'At some point, customers are going to say 'I'm going to get this elsewhere' or the equivalent, or 'Gee, I forgot, I've been using something else for so long, why would I go back?'"

Now, all of this doesn't mean that news websites don't have their place and that they aren't of value to readers. They are, but technology has made 'access to information' king. And if a messenger can't deliver, well, there's another messenger waiting to fill those shoes just around the virtual corner.

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