BATON ROUGE — Walk through the front doors of the journalism building at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, about 80 miles northwest of New Orleans, make a sharp left, and you’ll find a cramped, noisome roomful of New Orleans Times-Picayune staffers, made homeless by hurricane Katrina, working the story of a lifetime.
It was to LSU that about 60 of the paper’s staff fled after evacuating the city two Tuesdays ago and the university, to its credit, has provided them with laptops, phones and office space ever since. The ad hoc newsroom — perhaps 15 feet wide by 30 feet long — isn’t much to look at, and with the paper’s staff sitting around the outer walls and crowded together at a table in the middle, there is even less room to move. A stash of mouthwash, razors, toothbrushes and toothpaste sit on a cooler as you walk in. Around the tightly-packed rectangle of a room, you’ll find at any one time about 20 staffers sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, in front of their laptops, talking on their cellular phones. Whether they’re talking to family members who have fled the state, working story angles, trying to rent hotel rooms or arrange with whom they’re staying that night, they’re all — without exception — still writing about a city that some of them haven’t set foot in for almost two weeks.
And 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.
Weigh the complexities: 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? Can a 168-year old paper, whose initial cover price was a 6 1/4 cent Spanish coin, long survive after being reduced to what amounts to the country’s most tragic metro section?
Answers will be a while coming. Managing editor for news operations Peter Kovacs says that at the moment his only concern is getting the paper out each day, in the face of every obstacle. Contrary to some reports last week that the paper’s owner, Advance Publications, an arm of the Newhouse empire, was going to shut down the paper and just walk away from an untenable investment, the company says it is going to see the Times-Picayune through this upheaveal and out the other side. Indeed, Kovacs says, everyone who was on the payroll before Katrina continues on it, at full pay.
Despite all this, to see the newsroom at LSU is to see the basic elements of journalism — go, see, come back, tell — being practiced at a high level of professionalism and dedication. While the staff looks weary and ragged, they’re doing what reporters do — digging out the facts, one by one by one, and painting a vivid daily picture of the ever-shifting scene. Sitting in the foyer of the journalism building, I watched them walk out of the hot, stuffy little newsroom to gobble a bag of chips, drink some water or conduct a cell phone interview a few feet away from a group of freshly-scrubbed returning students. Many of the staffers are staying with LSU professors or other local residents, and make it into the office when they can. When I left about 9 p.m. last Wednesday night, staffers who had been there all day were still making phone calls, taking dictation from reporters in New Orleans, flipping furiously through their scribbled notes and tapping away at their laptops. They may have a place to sleep, but they appeared in no hurry to get there.
Over lunch on Wednesday at a restaurant in the eastern suburbs of Baton Rouge (a city of 277,000 whose population has swelled by 250,000 since the hurricane), Kovacs recounted how he and his staff escaped their office on Howard Avenue in New Orleans Tuesday morning, after a harrowing night during which the water slowly crept up the front steps of the building. After deciding early in the morning that the water was going to keep coming and that to stay was to put everyone in danger, management wrangled up newspaper delivery trucks to ferry reporters and editors from the loading docks to safety.
Leaving didn’t come without its own worries, according to Kovacs. He remembers thinking at the time that the decision to leave the city would “go down in history as either an act of genius or one of complete cowardice.”