Its City Gone, the Times-Picayune Rises to the Occasion

An enduring tenet of journalism is that, no matter how or where disaster strikes, the paper must get out.

That’s a point of honor, from college papers and small weeklies to the largest metro dailies, and this week the staffers of the New Orleans Times-Picayune have performed admirably and resolutely in pursuit of that obligation, continuing to publish even as their city, their homes and their workplace have been swallowed up by floodwaters.

Following an extraordinary electronic-only edition Tuesday, the Times-Picayune dispatched its best reporters back out into the floodwaters and decamped key editors and tech people to the offices of the Houma (La.) Courierr, 60 miles away, and the Baton Rouge Advocate, 80 miles away. From there, they produced a smaller, 13-page electronic edition today. Headlined “Under Water,” it is a comprehensive package of reports and photographs that uniquely informs readers about the broadening narrative of tragedy enveloping their city.

Managing Editor Dan Shea’s lead story notes the eerie result of the 17th Street Canal levee’s breach yesterday:

“With [New Orleans engulfed in] solid water from the lake to the French Quarter, the inundation and depopulation of an entire American city was at hand.”

Inside, the paper lays out the full human tragedy of Katrina’s aftermath, from unimaginable destruction to the sobs of a middle-aged man who lost his wife, and from looting by police officers to a hard-hitting report from its Washington bureau on the federal government’s emergency preparedness failures.

We meet Mike Parks, a Slidell resident navigating his skiff through a golf course fairway in the sudden “marine wasteland” of upscale Oak Harbor and Eden Isles, searching with his wife for people to rescue. We encounter Daniel Weber, 52, about to break down after his wife drowned and he spent 14 hours clinging to driftwood in the polluted waters of the city. We hear police pleading that they are helpless to stop anarchy, and we see (PDF) a search-and-rescue team peering through a rooftop gap in search of a man who had been calling for help, only to discover he had already died. These are all stories that only on-the-ground reporting can produce, and the paper’s reporters and photographers clearly put themselves in some dicey situations to get them.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the Times-Picayune’s home page are links to evacuee information and posts asking about missing individuals, and a “What’s Happened To My Neighborhood?” forum that gives the city’s displaced residents some idea of the level of destruction near their streets and homes. In addition, since the beginning of the storm, a breaking news blog has provided frequent updates across a wide range of terrain.

All told, the paper’s efforts are providing whatever small percentage of the city’s evacuees who have Internet access with a crucial public service — and are showing the rest of us that, despite all their problems, in times of crisis, newspapers (and the newsgathering operations behind them) can still turn into pure public service operations transmitting information to an information-starved public . Other New Orleans-based journalists whose bases have been rendered unusable — from the AP to local TV news — have also continued to report from the city, and they deserve commendation as well. (As does the staff of the Gulfport-based Sun Herald, over 80 miles to the east, which also kept publishing, even as its city was flattened by wind and rain.)

Today the governor ordered New Orleans abandoned indefinitely, and the mayor said it will be “12 to 16 weeks” before the city is habitable again.

New Orleans, in a sense, has been wiped off the map. But, Shea vowed, “We will not miss a day of publishing.”

The news from New Orleans may well keep getting worse. All the more reason for the Times-Picayune to keep serving an anxious public hungry for that news — and, by doing so, to stand as a small but important beacon of hope.

Edward B. Colby

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.