On a breezy Sunday morning in October 2006, residents of New Orleans—displaced, exhausted, wondering if they would live to see their city’s resurrection—woke to one of the most audacious acts of mass psychotherapy ever performed by an American newspaper. It took place under an unlikely byline. Chris Rose, a columnist for the daily Times-Picayune, was once known primarily for reporting on the bad behavior of visiting celebrities.
Hurricane Katrina changed that: it transformed Rose into a plaintive voice for a struggling city. His columns detailed the emotional toll of living amid still-flatted houses and daily reminders of the 1,500 who died in the storm’s aftermath. And then, more than a year after the breached levees plunged whole districts underwater, Rose was sharing with readers the story of his own descent. Rose’s column was promoted on page one and dominated the paper’s Living section:
I should make a confession. For all of my adult life, when I gave it thought—which wasn’t very often—I regarded the concepts of depression and anxiety as pretty much a load of hooey. I thought anti-depressants were for desperate housewives and fragile poets. I no longer feel that way. Not since I fell down the rabbit hole myself and enough hands reached down to pull me out. One of those hands belonged to a psychiatrist holding a prescription for anti-depressants. I took it. And it changed my life. Maybe saved my life.
For the next 4,000 words, Rose described a spiral familiar to many Katrina survivors: the “crying jags and fetal positionings,” the “thousand-yard stare,” the inability to hold conversations. “I’d noodle around on the piano, read weightless fiction, and reach for my kids, always, trying to hold them, touch them, kiss them. Tell them I was still here,” he wrote. “But I was disappearing fast.” Finally, Rose described how the anti-depressant drug Cymbalta helped clear away some of that darkness, enabling him to function again.
In few cities would such a personal account have received such prominent play—or elicited more than 6,000 e-mails. But Katrina has transformed how journalism is practiced at The Times-Picayune. It has blurred the lines between those who suffer and those who chronicle that suffering, and has challenged traditional notions of objectivity. And it has become a better newspaper in the process. Every reporter and editor was directly affected by Katrina, and the Picayune’s pages are suffused every day with outrage and betrayal—and with solid reporting. The paper has relentlessly investigated the Army Corps of Engineers, which built New Orleans’s faulty levees, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose response to the storm provoked such frustration and anger. It has sounded the alarm about Louisiana’s disappearing wetlands, which would render New Orleans even more vulnerable during the next hurricane. And it has sent reporters to Japan and the Netherlands to learn what makes successful flood-control systems work.
And the newspaper has bonded with its readers; the Picayune is an essential part of coffee-shop conversation all over the metropolitan area. At a time when dailies are wondering how to hold onto wandering readers, it has proven that a paper that claims a stake in its city’s survival, reporting with passion and voice, can remain an essential part of the civic conversation. “Other papers would kill to be that relevant,” says Harry Shearer, the actor and satirist and part-time New Orleanian.
No Picayune writer epitomizes this transformation more than the forty-seven-year-old Rose, whose journey through breakdown and redemption spurred a communal catharsis. “He bled for us in those columns,” says Linda Ellerbee, the former NBC anchor who covered Katrina’s aftermath for Nick News, a children’s broadcast. “He made it more real than any photo, any TV coverage could—more than Anderson Cooper crying on the air, more than Sean Penn going though the water in his boat. He let us into his dark places. In the old-fashioned, Biblical sense, he bore witness.”
Bearing witness hadn’t been in Rose’s plans. After covering crime, presidential politics, and regional features at the Picayune for fourteen years, he was tapped in 1998 to replace a retiring gossip columnist. He set out, he says, to “dirty that column up” and engage younger readers. “I was over reading about where rich white folks went on their vacations: ‘Bill and Buffy Moriarty recently back from Aspen, where they report that little Molly is doing very well in film school.’ I’m going, ‘Whoa! Guys! We’re almost at the end of the century here. They should send that out in their Christmas newsletter. That doesn’t belong in the newspaper.’”