Newspaper Finds New Attitude After Katrina
To New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose, the front porch gatherings felt like an extension of his work -- another way to talk with his neighbors about everything that had happened since Hurricane Katrina.
A collection of old and new friends arrived on the stoop of his Uptown home most nights following the storm. Their stories flowed, along with the cold bottles of Abita Amber, the local brew.
“Even the people who usually watched ESPN and ‘Sex and the City’ were flushed out of their houses,” recalled the newspaperman, whose neighborhood escaped serious flooding. “We all sort of bonded together.”
So it was with considerable pain that Rose recounted in his column this month how one of the regulars on his front stoop lost her fiance. He killed himself, apparently in despair over innumerable losses that the hurricane delivered.
“The most open, joyous, free-wheeling, celebratory city in the country is broken, hurting, down on its knees. Failing. Begging for help,” Rose wrote. “Somebody turn this movie off; I don’t want to watch it anymore. I want a slow news day. I want a no news day.”
Four months after America’s costliest disaster, Rose and his colleagues at the Times-Picayune have made their front porch the world’s. They have become the definitive news outlet for myriad journalists trying to understand this city, and an essential read for its displaced and far-flung denizens.
Set against the cacophony of bickering local, state and federal officials, the 168-year-old newspaper’s voice has been clearly heard.
The Times-Picayune exposed poorly constructed levees, picked apart obtuse FEMA policies, debunked overblown claims of evacuation center violence, and traveled as far as the Netherlands and Japan to show how other communities have coped with flooding and disaster.
The newspaper’s success in the face of disaster raises a question: Are objectivity and dispassion in journalism overrated?
Some observers of New Orleans’ daily newspaper say they are, and that the Times-Picayune’s work in recent weeks evokes the best advocacy reporting of the Progressive Era a century ago, or even of the American Revolution.
“Objectivity is a fairly new construct in this business that has little to do with the quality of reporting,” said Jay Perkins, a journalism professor at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. “Sometimes you need to tell people not only what is really going on but how it feels.”
There may be those who are offended by the Times-Picayune’s crusading tone, but they would be hard to find in New Orleans or elsewhere along the Gulf Coast. Clancy DuBos, editor of the New Orleans alternative weekly Gambit, said the catastrophe demanded a new approach.
“I think the traditional journalistic, arm’s-length ... cold view of what’s going on would be taken almost as an abandonment at this point,” DuBos said. “I think the readers want us to be up on the rooftops and to shout. The Picayune has done an excellent job. They have done a real public service.”
And so, one piece by Rose rants at a driver who tosses a handful of trash into an already waste-filled city. A column by the paper’s feature editor, James O'Byrne, wonders how a federal government with “blood on its hands” from its failed levees could question the wisdom of rebuilding in his once lovely Lakeview neighborhood. “Why do they hate us?” the outdoor editor asks in another column, so palpable has the fear of being forsaken become. And a star investigative reporter tries to head off television’s “60 Minutes” from reporting that New Orleans could be doomed to sink beneath the Gulf of Mexico.
Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss took the central message right to the federal government’s doorstep last month, with an op-ed piece in the Washington Post. “We want word from Washington,” said the New Orleans native, “that a great American city will not be left to die.”
Founded by a pair of journalists in 1837 with $700 in gambling winnings, the Picayune took its name from how much it cost to buy a copy: a 6 1/4 -cent Spanish coin. In subsequent years, it became the first big-city paper to be run by a woman, and has had such illustrious writers as O. Henry and William Faulkner on its staff.
Today, the bulk of the Times-Picayune’s staff of about 270 reporters and editors has returned to the headquarters off Interstate 10 that was abandoned to advancing floodwaters on Aug. 30. Many of them are natives and many more converts who say they wouldn’t live or work anywhere but New Orleans.
“It’s not a war of choice. It’s a war of survival,” said Douglas McCollam, a native and freelance writer based in Washington who spent more than a week reporting about the Times-Picayune after the disaster. “They clearly see it as the city fighting for its life. And they are going to respond accordingly.”
Perkins, the journalism professor, said the Times-Picayune had done a “fabulous job” responding to the disaster. “They are on their A game.... The original American papers were certainly crusaders for a cause. And they are too.”
Employees at the Times-Picayune worry -- in an industry beset by declining circulation and a spate of recent job reductions -- how the paper’s New York parent company can afford to keep the paper going with thousands of readers and advertisers in exile.
So far, however, Newhouse Newspapers has shown no sign of pulling back -- or out of -- New Orleans. “I have said that the Times-Picayune will continue to publish and that Advance will continue to own the Times-Picayune,” said Donald Newhouse, president of Advance Publications, parent of a publishing empire that includes 25 Newhouse Newspapers. “I don’t see that changing. Period.”
Circulation of the Times-Picayune, once acclaimed for reaching a higher percentage of its city’s readers than any other large U.S. paper, has crawled back to nearly 200,000 on weekdays, compared with a pre-Katrina circulation of 269,000.
Traffic on the paper’s www.nola.com website -- which jumped as much as ninefold immediately after the storm -- remained about 50% above normal in October, with 783,000 distinct viewers for the month, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
The frenzy of the early reporting after Katrina hit -- camping out in makeshift newsrooms, begging and borrowing power for laptop computers, wading and kayaking to stories -- has given way to a long, difficult slog.
As many as half of the employees in some departments of the newspaper remain out of their homes. And time away from work does not mean time away from the disaster; it means long hours filled haggling with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, insurance adjusters and contractors.
Without any intended exaggeration, veteran journalists say this is the last story they’ll ever cover.
“If we were on adrenaline the first few weeks, we are operating just on faith right now ... faith that in some kind of way this is going to work out, that somehow we will come back,” said John McCusker, a staff photographer who used to spend many Saturdays leading a “Cradle of Jazz” tour for overseas tourists.
One of the paper’s most persistent efforts since the storm has been to combat the image -- put forward by some politicians and pundits -- of New Orleanians as a gang of shiftless wastrels waiting for a handout. The Times-Picayune has hammered at the region’s economic significance (“the fulcrum of one-third of the nation’s oil and gas and 40% of its seafood,” Amoss’ Thanksgiving-weekend op-ed piece said) and its eminence as a hothouse of American culture.
Several of the Times-Picayune’s reporters and editors said they knew they had to be cautious that the passion that fired their work not threaten their objectivity.
Mark Schleifstein, a respected investigative reporter, said he faced that challenge in late November, when he learned about the report CBS planned to air on the highly rated “60 Minutes.”
The piece was to feature a theory by St. Louis University geologist Tim Kusky, who concluded that New Orleans within 90 years would become an island, armored against the surrounding sea. “We should be thinking of a gradual pullout of New Orleans and starting to rebuild people’s homes, businesses and industry in places that can last more than 80 years,” Kusky told “60 Minutes.”
Tipped off about the program a day before the Nov. 20 broadcast, Schleifstein made an unusual attempt at a preemptive strike. He e-mailed and phoned the network with his objections. “I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ ” the reporter recalled. “ ‘This just isn’t right.’ ”
Schleifstein, a Pulitzer Prize winner for a series on threatened world fisheries, said he had never done such a thing before. The next day, he felt uncomfortable when the paper’s city editor assigned him to write about the TV segment that he had already attacked.
In the resulting story, Schleifstein quoted five experts who said it was far from certain the city was doomed to a watery grave. (Headline: “Not So Fast, ’60 Minutes’ ”)
CBS correspondent Scott Pelley stood by the story, saying three other experts backed Kusky.
A spokesman for the program declined, however, to criticize the Times-Picayune’s rebuttal.
Still, the typically understated Schleifstein sounded sheepish about his pre-broadcast salvo. “That was over the top for me. I shouldn’t have done it,” he said later. “But these are unusual times.”
Going forward, journalism expert Perkins said the paper’s greatest challenge would be “sustaining the momentum in the face of overwhelming despair.”
Regular readers recall Rose’s pre-Katrina columns for their light, smart-alecky tone -- with regular riffs on native daughter Britney Spears and his other high jinks, like lingerie shopping with Erin Brockovich.
Now the 45-year-old columnist is painting from a broader and darker palate.
He bemoaned the myriad makeshift signs (most for cleanup and recovery services) blighting the city, recalled the quiet struggles faced by children in the flood zone, and pondered the fate of a fellow citizen he came to know only via a message spray-painted across an 8th Ward home -- “One dead in attic.”
“I have unwittingly and unwillingly become an emotional flashpoint,” Rose said in an interview. “That’s made me an audience for other people’s pain.”
From day to day, or even in the course of a single column, Rose’s optimism and despair overflow and then recede. By the end of his piece about the suicide, the columnist told how the unnamed “New Orleans girl” had pledged to go on, despite her fiance’s death.
“I don’t know what flavor of hope that she’s got, or how she got it,” he wrote, “but if she’s got a taste of it in her mouth, then the rest of us can take a little spoonful and try to make it through another day, another week, another lifetime.”