'Hurricane' Irene, which eventually turned out to be a tropical storm, was a natural disaster that loved the spotlight. As Howard Kurz of The Daily Beast points out, the fact that a rare hurricane was poised to strike the East Coast base of many major news operations managed to draw news coverage in the US away from the ongoing struggle in Libya in favour of non-stop storm coverage.
There's nothing strange about this: whenever unexpected bad weather strikes a major city, the media is always on high alert providing constant updates for their concerned audience.
Irene, however, is particularly interesting as the coverage, both user-generated and professional, spanned so many platforms and even temporarily altered the business models of several news organisations. Was it a 'hurricane of hype,' asked Agence France-Presse?
Venture Beat reports that citizens of the affected area used the San Francisco based picture sharing site Instagram to collect images of their storm-survival experiences under the album 'Instacane' (water, whiskey and cats appear to be common themes). The album not only creates an interesting retrospective on the collective experience of the hurricane, it's also an example of constant, ongoing documentation of the event by the people who lived through it.
In terms of coverage from major news outlets, cable networks not only devoted their news channels solely to hurricane coverage, Twitter updates were also obviously on the menu, allowing East Coast residents to track the latest developments. Delivering breaking news via the micro-blogging site was deemed to be a 'public service' by The New York Times, which dropped its pay-wall to allow readers access to storm related coverage.
As PaidContent reports, Newsday also did the same, while CBS took the chance to remind its readers that, fortunately for them, it's content is always free. The digital publication Zinio is even offering free editions to travellers who have been caught up in the chaos of the storm.
Is this relaxation of pay-walls is something that may happen more often in times of public emergency? Perhaps. In business terms, dropping a pay-wall is one way to ensure that a site does not miss out on a significant short-term traffic increase and, it may even draw people back to the site when the pay wall is reinstated, it's too early to tell as of yet. It could also be interpreted as generosity and an awareness of news organisations' role as a public service.