Media : Earthquake Doesn't Stop the Presses : Without missing an edition, the Kobe Shimbun kept readers informed despite tragedy and the loss of its offices in temblor.


The newspaper account of one family's tragedy in the Kobe earthquake etched the pathos of Japanese whose relatives were buried in the rubble of collapsed homes.

The story told the tragedy of a man who escaped from the damaged second floor of his house but who knew his father was trapped on the crushed ground floor. The son struggled for three days to free his father--or at least to recover his body.

He called out the old man's name but got no answer. He attacked the rubble with the help of a carpenter friend, using a saw and a crowbar. They reached the place where his father slept, but he wasn't there.

The son unsuccessfully begged for help from the district fire station, but he was told that the priority of searchers had to be those who might still be alive. On the third day after the quake, the father's body was finally retrieved by troops from Japan's Self-Defense Forces.

It was the kind of story that many Japanese newspapers carried after the devastating Jan. 17 quake. But this one had a difference. The writer was Yasuhiro Miki, 62, chief editorial writer of the Kobe Shimbun, and he was telling his own story.

"I don't know how to describe the powerless feeling I had," Miki wrote. "I never anticipated experiencing a victim's fear and pain in this kind of circumstance."

As the port city of Kobe struggles to cope with the deadly earthquake's aftermath, its hometown newspaper has been more than an observer. With 12 staffers injured in the quake, 10 family members of employees killed and its headquarters rendered unsafe, the 97-year-old newspaper is a full participant in both the pain of the disaster and the effort to recover.

Yet throughout the chaos of the quake and the rescue efforts, the Kobe Shimbun never stopped publishing its 520,000 daily copies.

"I think a newspaper is a lifeline like water, gas and electricity," said Hideo Yamane, 54, the Kobe Shimbun's top editor. "People in the evacuation centers don't have television. When they read the newspaper, that's the first they know about what's happening to their city."

Yamane's home escaped major damage, and his family was unhurt, but he saw the devastation of his city as he drove to work in downtown Kobe soon after the pre-dawn temblor struck. The newsroom was a shambles. A few reporters living nearby had already arrived, and two phone lines were working, but the production staff told him that the computer system was damaged and that putting out the newspaper would be impossible, Yamane said.

But the newspaper's presses, located in another building outside the worst-hit parts of the city, were still usable. And just a year ago, the newspaper signed an agreement for mutual help in case of emergency with the Kyoto Shimbun, whose offices are an hour's drive away in normal times.

About three hours after the earthquake, Yamane telephoned the Kyoto Shimbun and was assured of its help. Kobe editors responsible for layout quickly set out for Kyoto in their own cars, a drive that took them five hours because of earthquake damage and crowded traffic.

"We had two live telephone lines here the day of the earthquake, and we kept them connected to the Kyoto Shimbun the entire day," Yamane said. "If you hung up, you couldn't get through again. We read the articles over the phone."

The Kyoto Shimbun's computers were used to produce film negatives for a four-page evening edition of the Kobe Shimbun, down from the usual 12 to 16 pages, and an eight-page morning edition, down from the typical 24 to 32 pages. Staffers drove the negative sheets back to the Kobe printing plant. Presses rolled that night. Papers were delivered to homes outside the most heavily damaged areas on the morning of Jan. 18, and they began reaching evacuation centers later that day, Yamane said.

The editor said he believed that the benefits to the citizens of Kobe from the continued publication of their newspaper strongly outweighed any additional burden that production and delivery of the newspaper may have put on overcrowded roads and jammed telephone lines.

Putting out the newspaper also was a "natural instinct," Yamane said. "When people face death, they try to live. For a newspaper, death comes when it fails to publish. We struggled to find a way and found the 'holy light' of the Kyoto Shimbun."

The evening of Jan. 17, Kobe Shimbun workers had to abandon their headquarters, because the telephone lines went dead and the building was considered unsafe. The structure is now due for demolition, Yamane said.

Fortunately, the newspaper was already in the process of building a new main office, and the construction center for that project had two live telephones. Operations moved there for six days, with articles written on laptop computers and transmitted electronically to Kyoto. Then the journalists moved into rented space in an office building that survived the quake. Their ability to put out the newspaper was ensured.

Keiko Suzuki, a Kobe Shimbun subscriber whose house survived intact even though she lives in the badly damaged Nada district, said her family recognized the value of the newspaper after power failures knocked out electricity in their home.

Although they could still use a television in their car and a portable radio, the family depended heavily on the Kobe Shimbun for news of their neighborhood and friends, Suzuki said. "It has a very realistic description of our condition," she added.

Eiji Yamakita, a shipbuilding executive who subscribes to the Kobe Shimbun, said the newspaper's employees set aside personal concerns in order to do their jobs.

"I heard on the radio that they went into their severely damaged building to bring out resource materials, knowing that there was no guarantee for their lives," Yamakita said. "I think they're having great difficulty. . . . This may be a unique part of the Japanese character, to have such loyalty to your work even if your own house has collapsed."

Yamakita praised the newspaper for being "written from the victims' point of view" and for offering such things as concrete information on how to contact city offices about problems.

"Unlike other newspapers," Yamane noted, "we were in the same situation as the people we were interviewing. I think that was the most distinguishing characteristic of our coverage.

"Reporting on the disaster wasn't done from the third-person point of view. We did our work sharing the same pain, sadness and agony as the victims, and that was something we had never experienced before."

Times researcher Chiaki Kitada in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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