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Covering Katrina

By The Drum, Administrator

September 23, 2005 | 10 min read

It was midnight and I clambered into the squat red and black delivery truck at the back door of the Daily Record in Cadogan Street, Glasgow. A young and impecunious journalist, I had decided to hitch a lift on the paper’s van to Dundee to see my family and save the 15-bob (75p) train fare. No-one told me the van had only one seat – for the driver. I sat on bundles of newspapers, making it the most uncomfortable two hours of my life. It’s not the sort of thing a journalist is normally expected to do.

The other week the journalists and staff of the New Orleans Times-Picayune also took to the newspaper’s vans – but in much more dramatic circumstances and with a much better reason.

As the floodwaters rose inexorably in central New Orleans, more than 260 staffers and family members climbed into the newspaper’s trucks, up to 25 in each vehicle, to evacuate the company HQ where all power was out and water was already threatening the presses.

“Editors were barking orders through the newsroom and cafeteria, where some were still eating breakfast, to grab what you could put on your lap and move to the loading dock,” editor Jim Amoss was later to describe the scene. Some carried laptops. Managing editor Peter Kovacs grabbed his toothbrush, a T-shirt and a cigar.

Behind them, the staff left a paper which was to never appear in print – with the first report that one of the city’s levees had been breached.

The Times-Picayune was ahead of the news, but that was what you might expect. Three years ago, it won wide praise for a five-part series called ‘Washing Away,’ which predicted the disaster. It began, “It’s only a matter of time before South Louisiana takes a direct hit from a major hurricane. Billions have been spent to protect us, but we grow more vulnerable every day.”

The evacuation of the HQ of The Times-Picayune (the name comes from picayune – an old Spanish coin worth about 6 cents) was to be the start of an incredible odyssey where the venerable newspaper itself became a central player, using its website, nola.com, as a lifeline, before churning out 16-page emergency editions and, ultimately, challenging the President in a powerful leader.

In the first five days of the Katrina turmoil, its website drew 72 million hits. Later Editor & Publisher reported that it received 200 million page views in a week and a half, 20 times what it was pre-Katrina.

One American media expert was impressed and said, “For years newspapers have been wondering what to do about their websites or whether the public could really look to them to function as a newspaper. What drew the public to nola.com was that this was a real live web newspaper, with reporters and photographers out there reporting. It wasn’t just lifting material from other sources.”

Much of the content for the site was provided by the newspaper’s photographers and reporters who had just been evacuated in the trucks – then volunteered to go back into the flood-filled city.

The other employees were sent to two locations, one of which was Houma, Louisiana, where the afternoon paper The Courier had offered food, computers, phone lines and internet connections. Family members were dropped at nearby shelters. About 12 journalists started putting together an issue of the paper in PDF format to post on the website, nola.com.

Website editor Jon Donley was to work for two days before hearing from his adult daughter and learning she was safe.

Sub-editor Mary Chauvin, “cobbled together graphic elements from earlier online editions to replicate the look of the paper.” Sixty more Times-Picayune staff members went to Baton Rouge, where Louisiana State University had offered banks of phones and computers.

The paper that appeared the next morning, again in PDF format on the website, contained 17 articles and an editorial, all written by staff members, and 12 photographs, all but one from staff members.

By Friday morning, 2 September, The Times-Picayune was also back in print. At The Courier, 50,000 copies rolled off the presses – a far cry from its normal circulation of 270,000, but astonishing nonetheless.

The same delivery trucks that had rescued staff took bundles to subscribers throughout Louisiana and to the habitable areas of New Orleans. It was given away – the only revenue came from support ads from companies like BP, Walmart and Exxon.

Reporter Paul McLeary was sent from New York by Columbia Journalism Review to see how The Times-Picayune was doing in its temporary newsroom at Louisiana State University which was about 15 feet wide by 30 feet long.

“Around the tightly-packed rectangle of a room, there were about 20 staffers sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, in front of their laptops, talking on their cellular phones,” he reported.

“They were all – without exception – still writing about a city that some of them hadn’t set foot in for almost two weeks.

McLeary was impressed, “Day in and day out, in this cramped and often stuffy environment, arguably some of the most urgent, and personal, journalism in the country is being written.”

But he also touched on the questions looming in the background: How does a hometown newspaper write about a city that, in effect, no longer exists? How long can a newspaper staff, effectively homeless and running on fumes, continue to hold up? Where does a newspaper turn for advertising revenue when the city it caters to all of a sudden has neither businesses nor subscribers?

American big city newspapers are unlike Britain’s, although we are moving in the same general direction. Frequently in monopoly situations, they are fat with supplements and sections, especially at the weekend: all paid for by advertising.

And that, some observers thought, was the issue for The Times-Picayune: how long would it take to get back its core readership and advertising markets. Months? Years?

Kovacs thought there were too many pessimists about. By Tuesday, September 13 when we talked, the paper had already upped the print run to 70,000 and a move to a bigger press at Mobile in Alabama was going to allow more pages. And more adverts.

“You can hardly stuff a 16-page paper with adverts, but the ads are there waiting to get in when we have a bigger product,” said Kovacs.

His immediate concern was getting the paper out each day, in the face of every obstacle. And the occasional rumour, swiftly denied, that the owners, the Newhouse family, were thinking of pulling the plug on the paper. “Mr Newhouse has just been round here telling us what a great job we are doing,” said Kovacs. “That is your answer.”

Kovacs pointed out that, two weeks after the storm, “the city is becoming more vibrant every day.” Not only that, half the paper’s readership lay outside New Orleans and copies were being grabbed as fast as they were printed.

The parent company, which publishes 25 other dailies in the USA – and has a high reputation for backing its editors – says it is going to see The Times-Picayune through this upheaval and out the other side. All 300 staff who were on the payroll before Katrina are still on it, at full pay, “even if at the moment there is no work for some of them,” said Kovacs.

Amoss, who has edited the paper for 15 years, told Duncan Campbell in The Guardian, that usually when a newspaper attracts the attention of the rest of the media, it is because it has embarked on “some grand journalistic feat – but we sort of stumbled into this.”

The leader that demanded the heads of FEMA, which has been quoted all over the world, was “not typical of the paper’s style,” he said. “We don’t normally frame an editorial to the President of the United States. Both in substance and in tone, it departed from its conventions.”

But it certainly was effective. The paper has an impressive reputation with two Pulitzer prizes to its credit. Many believe its efforts on Katrina will draw a third prize.

With the spirit of the exiled staff, the wholehearted support of the company, and New Orleans’ own desire to bounce back, newspaper fans are convinced we can scotch the supreme irony: a paper put out of business by the story that won it a Pulitzer.

Charity begins on radio

If The Times-Picayune captured many of the media headlines, there was also praise for another medium: radio. “As modern forms of communications failed one by one in New Orleans, one technology functioned, and that was radio,” wrote Ellen Barry in the Los Angeles Times.

Barry told how, working out of a studio in Baton Rouge, 18 New Orleans radio stations got together to work as one: the United Radio Broadcasters of New Orleans. Personalities from all the stations – sportscasters, rock jocks, Christian broadcasters and smooth-talk R&B talent – served as the slender connection between stranded people and the outside world. “It was radio that recorded the locations of hundreds of people who used the fading batteries of their cellphones to call the station,” said Barry. From morning to night, radio broadcast the names of survivors as they looked for lost family members.

On 29 August, when the storm arrived, satellite dishes broke loose and crashed. The only media outlet still broadcasting live from the city was station WWL. By 6am with a levee broken, the station evacuated to Baton Rouge, 80 miles away. Some employees drove – the last few were evacuated by a helicopter chartered by WWL’s fiercest competitor, Clear Channel Communications, to pick up its own employees. Clear Channel and WWL’s parent company, Entercom Communications Corp that day decided to temporarily combine their operations: 18 stations would broadcast as one. Clear Channel would benefit from WWL’s news operation, and Entercom would have access to Clear Channel’s studios.

The United Radio Broadcasters of New Orleans went on the air at dawn on 31 August, two days after the hurricane. For three days listeners called in to tell the world about the terrible things that were happening to them. They asked radio hosts how they should get to their roofs. The answer: ‘Climb out on the windowsill. Hand the children up.’ DJs gave instructions on how to take a wooden door off its hinges so it could be used as a raft. Barry described how Deke ‘the Big Chief’ Bellavia, a sportscaster on WWL, one of the world’s leading authorities on high school football, found himself instructing a dehydrated listener to punch a hole in a can of corn and suck out the liquid. Later he was to soothe a woman who called from her cellphone while wading through water that had bodies in it. This was not what he was hired to do. “You find a way to get through it because the people need you,” Bellavia said.

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