In the first few weeks, there was very little other media coverage going into our region and so the papers we delivered everyday, often by the journalists themselves as they made their rounds covering the stories, provided the primary source of information for people across the coastal counties. It was important for hurricane victims to know what was going on and to see the images and to hear what was happening to their neighbors and to find out what had happened, in many cases, in their own communities. People were extremely isolated in those days. We emphasized usefulness in our coverage just in terms of reporting where they could go for goods and services, the location of things, and how to do things that were necessary to the furtherance of their existence. Of course, we were also telling of their plight to the larger world which we think was important. On the third day when our headline said, “Help us now,” we felt we were an advocate for our region in a loud voice that could even be heard in Washington. We helped get the attention of those who were in a position to respond to our region’s needs.
In terms of missing something or wishing we had done something differently, it is just the overwhelming scale of the disaster and the knowledge that if we had a thousand reporters and photographers that there would still be big stories that would remain untold, and learning how to pace ourselves to tell the story over the long haul.
LCB: You were hired as executive editor of the Daily Oklahoman a few months after CJR dubbed it it “The Worst Newspaper in America,” and “a fat, incurious monopoly” that was “locally known as the Daily Disappointment.” Why did you want that job? And, although you were there for less than a year, plenty of people — including CJR — were enthusiastic about the changes you made there. What did you take away from that experience?
ST: I was offered the job, and after reflection I accepted. Accepting the challenge was consistent with my career and to some extent the general pursuit of the American dream. The paper was about twice the size of the Mobile Register, and I saw a great opportunity to provide journalistic service to an entire state. I think the newspaper succeeded in that regard during my stewardship. I left Oklahoma a better editor and with good memories of the many who received us warmly during my sojourn there.
LCB: We were put in touch by a PR firm that contacted us to say you would be in New York this week and available to talk about the Sun Herald’s Katrina coverage. Why now? Seems like part of a Knight Ridder good will/PR push. Is this the good news story Knight Ridder has to tell these days?
ST: It had long been planned for me to be in New York to address students at Columbia University on the Sun Herald Katrina coverage (even though I ultimately had to cancel because of pressing duties in Mississippi). I believe the firm’s intention was to simply make me available to you for an interview and the decision was yours as to whether you believed that would be newsworthy. As this question suggests, you are perfectly free to ask whatever you like. I truly don’t believe it is part of any “PR push,” but you would have to ask someone else that question.
LCB: Five years ago, you were quoted in a CJR article fantasizing about something you dubbed “The Newsroom Trust,” whereby a certain percentage of a newspaper’s profits would be set aside for “the operation of a superior newsroom,” “above and beyond the regular newsroom budget … [to] allow for excellence that many editors no longer see possible.” Where does this fantasy stand today, in light of all the cuts your parent company and its peers are making?