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.”
We can answer that question. Since the entire staff made it out alive, since they are daily turning out top-notch journalism that is the envy of editors and reporters for far larger news outlets, and since readership numbers for the paper’s now-famous site, NOLA.com, have soared — Editor & Publisher reported on Friday that the Web site has received over 200 million page views over the past week and a half, or about 15 million a day, up from the 800,000 per day pre-Katrina — it seems safe to say that the decision to move to higher ground but keep publishing was indeed “an act of genius.”
Consider an excerpt from just one story from the Times-Picayune front page of last Thursday. And admire the density and intimacy of detail, not to mention the felicity of the telling:
Makeshift militia patrols Algiers neighborhood
Armed to the teeth, but they haven’t fired a shot
By Susan Langenhennig
Just after dusk on Tuesday night, with the rumble of helicopters and airplanes still overhead, Gareth Stubbs took his spot in a rocking chair on the balcony of an Algiers Point house, a shotgun, bottle of bug spray and a can of Pringles at his feet.
It was night No. 9 of his vigil, the balcony turned into a makeshift watch tower, with five borrowed shotguns, a pistol, a flare gun, an old AK-47 and loads of ammunition strategically placed next to the blankets and pillows where Stubbs, Vinnie Pervel and Gregg Harris have slept every night since Hurricane Katrina slammed into Southeast Louisiana.
When the Times-Picayune first decided to abandon its New Orleans building on that frantic morning of August 30, the initial plan was for everyone to be trucked a few miles out of the city to the paper’s West Bank office, but, like all emergency plans, there was a glitch. After bumping and sloshing through the deepening water to reach the far side, the convoy somehow got separated, (stories differ as to how, why and when), and in the end one group ended up in the town of Houma, with the rest going to LSU. At the same time, there were still reporters stuck inside the city who were unaccounted for. And, as soon as the main group got out, a small number of them decided to turn around and plunge back into the chaos for the simplest of reasons — to report to the outside world what was happening in a city become a watery graveyard.
It’s hard not to recognize this as pure journalistic instinct at its finest. At no point during this whole ordeal has the Picayune staff abandoned their posts. During the storm itself, the paper continued to post on its NOLA.com site right up until employees ran out of their office on Tuesday morning and piled into the backs of trucks that usually hold newspapers, not human beings. And as soon as they were out, they began strategizing about how to get their stories to the public. The edition planned for Wednesday was never printed (the presses were out and new ones hadn’t been found yet), but was posted on the paper’s site as a PDF, just as Thursday’s was.
You would have to be tone deaf to the advantages of familiarity with the battleground not to understand that, in a very real way, the staff of the Picayune were exactly the people one would want covering the story from its earliest hours. This is their city, and they know it’s quirks and corners better than any airlifted out-of-towner ever could. While I was still in Baton Rouge on Wednesday, a reporter for the New Republic who was in Mississippi and Louisiana for several days, told me that the Times-Picayune reporters seemed to be treated with more respect, and possibly given more access, by the authorities because they knew they were locals, and were writing about the destruction of their own backyards. Once I saw them in action in New Orleans myself, I came to agree with this assessment.
In the first hours and days after the storm, it was difficult to get in touch with the reporters in the field, Kovacs said. Cell phone service was spotty and land lines were almost completely down. Reporters in the city would call a staffer in Baton Rouge and, when they could get through, rapidly dictate their stories, since an Internet connection was still a pipe dream. But as time goes on, he says, things get a little bit better. Cell phone service is slowly improving, and the paper is rustling up satellite phones for its staff in the field. Also, after jumping around from place to place for much of the first week, the staff on the scene in the city has finally put down some roots, setting up a command post powered by a gasoline-fueled generator in a staffer’s house. They have one land line, and after writing their stories on laptops, take turns emailing them in. And the paper’s layout is coming together more easily as editors and production staff rely on instant messaging to communicate.
Despite this, of course, it’s still rough going on the ground in New Orleans. Reporters stay in the city for varying amounts of time, as “people have different thresholds for what they can take,” according to Kovacs. Whenever a reporter or photographer comes back to Baton Rouge, Kovacs calls them in to his office to ask what it was like in the city — and more importantly, to see if they’re okay. He has just begun forcing individual staffers to take some time off, so they can reflect on what they’re going through, and take a breather.
During those first violent and uncertain days last week, reporters did with what they had. One thing that helped them was a custom among some hurricane-tested citizens of the city who, to keep their cars away from the rising rain and floodwaters, leave them in elevated parking garages during storms. As a result, the staff in the city used some of their absent colleagues’ undamaged cars to drive around to hotspots. They even confiscated Kovacs’ son’s truck, which he just got back on Wednesday.
Since Friday, the paper has been putting out print editions as well as NOLA.com, each clocking in at about 17 pages. The paper’s September 1 edition, which was printed on The Courier’s presses, ran about 50,000 copies, while starting last Monday it bumped its run to 60,000, a number Kovacs says will have to start rising. Already, trickles of people are beginning to move back into certain pockets of the city’s surrounding communities, and displaced residents upstate are demanding to know where their hometown paper is. At this point, it’s still unclear as to how the Times-Picayune will print more to keep up with increasing demand, as it already seems to be pushing the 20,000-circulation Courier’s production capacity as it is.
As he drove through his new hometown, Kovacs (he’s shopping for a Baton Rouge house to buy; none are for rent and he doesn’t know when he’ll be able to move back to New Orleans) pondered aloud about when and how the paper, and the city, will come back to full flower. “I don’t know if the city’s biggest entities can come back until all of the small ones do,” he said, noting that no one has any idea about when the paper may once again move back into its waterlogged Howard street offices. The problem — and it’s only one of a legion of problems — is that with the city’s residents scattered all over the country, even if some businesses begin to reopen, who will be there to staff them, or to patronize them? And when some big businesses come back, will there be a support structure of delivery services, employees and all the other necessities of running a business? In short, can a city be reborn in pieces, or does the whole thing have to reassemble before it comes alive?
In paging through Wednesday’s 16-page edition — a stack of which sits in the foyer of the LSU journalism building next to a box of junk food and donated t-shirts, which students regard quizzically on their way by — one notices that even now the Times-Picayune contains ads. Entergy, Chase, ExxonMobil, State Farm, BP and WalMart all have paid ad space in the paper (“it’s the only revenue we’ve got,” Kovacs explains). And while the ads were little more than statements of support for those affected by Katrina, they do show that companies haven’t turned tail on the city, or on the Times-Picayune. And so, the paper devoid of a city continues to publish.
Part III: In New Orleans, Everyone’s a Critic