In November of 2005, CJR ran a piece by Douglas McCollam profiling heroic efforts at The Times-Picayune to cover New Orleans as it struggled through the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Two years later, the paper and the city are still struggling.
Features editor James O’Byrne and reporter Mark Schleifstein are in New York today attending a fundraiser for Times-Picayune staffers struggling to rebuild their lives. This afternoon, they fielded questions at the Columbia Journalism School, one floor up from CJR.
The gist: While there’s never been more to cover in New Orleans, circulation has declined, leaving the paper with fewer reporters. A post-Katrina hiring freeze was lifted last year, but the paper has lost good journalists who probably won’t ever be replaced. According to O’Byrne, some left shortly after the disaster. Others left as the days wore on and depression set in. And others, after proving their mettle, were plucked away.
Those who have stayed are facing transformed beats. The Times-Picayune now has three journalists covering levees—a fourth staffer who usually covers outdoors issues pitches in on a half-time basis. Still, it’s not enough.
“You see all these stories, and you can’t do them,” says Schleifstein, a Pulitzer-winning environmental reporter pulled from his beat to lead the team. “I can’t even give them to people, because there’s nobody there.”
“With post-traumatic stress, the event happens and as long as you aren’t re-exposed to it, you get better,” O’Byrne says. But that’s hardly an option in New Orleans. So he doles out stories not related to Katrina as a salve, worrying that his reporters will crack without a break. “We try to create a sense of normalcy here,” he says. “It’s a coping mechanism.”
For reporters who were in New Orleans during the storm, Katrina is personal. And while O’Byrne says that’s made the staff more cautious about thinking through fairness when writing and editing, he also says they’ve been discussing the limits of the “notion of objective journalism.” He was quick to defend his city’s right to exist after a questioner raised the notion that it might be better not to rebuild. And he assailed the federal bureaucracy. (As Schleifstein said in a reworking of the old journalism saw, “We regard FEMA as the comforted, and us, the city, as the afflicted.”)
While there’s still work to do, the paper’s made plans for next time—stockpiling computers for a back-up newsroom and installing generators at its bureaus on the safer north shore of Lake Ponchartrain.
And stashed away in the Times-Picayune parking garage are two boats, boats they hope they’ll never have to use.