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Times-Picayune Manages to Print Again, With Help

Times Staff Writer

When dozens of journalists from the New Orleans Times-Picayune boarded a fleet of delivery trucks and abandoned their newsroom to rising floodwaters Tuesday morning, the newspaper’s future seemed in doubt.

But Louisiana’s largest daily returned to print Friday morning, thanks to the pluck of its journalists and the willingness of a neighboring newspaper to share its printing presses, the Times-Picayune’s top editor said.

Jim Amoss described his reporters’ and editors’ rocky ride to safer quarters and their determination to cover the disaster in New Orleans even as many worried about the fate of their homes and loved ones.

“It’s extraordinary -- the willingness of all of these people to continue working under these conditions,” said Amoss, 57, the paper’s editor for 15 years. “They are putting incredible hardships aside and ignoring the fact that their families need them.”

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Most, but not all, of the newspaper’s editorial staff of 270 has been accounted for.

Missing is Leslie Williams, a veteran reporter who was last heard from Sunday as he made his way to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to report on a hurricane shelter.

“We have not heard from him, and it’s just inconceivable that someone as resourceful as him would not have found a way to contact us by now,” Amoss said. “That’s the most worrisome case we have.”

The odyssey of Times-Picayune staffers reflected that of many others in their city. They had hunkered down in sleeping bags in the newspaper’s offices for two nights -- along with family members -- to ride out Hurricane Katrina.

They made it through the initial storm, but when a couple of reporters ventured out on bicycles Monday afternoon, they found the water in the city rising.

The situation mirrored a scenario drawn by the newspaper in a series of stories three years ago that predicted a flooding disaster in New Orleans was inevitable. While some criticized the project as alarmist, it proved prophetic.

“It was a very hard kind of thing to get right,” Amoss said.

By Tuesday morning, a virtual moat of filthy water surrounded the news offices where the 269,000-circulation paper maintains its printing presses, near the Superdome.

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“The realization began to dawn on us that our plant was about to be engulfed,” Amoss said, “and that if we stayed any longer, not only would we be trapped, but we wouldn’t be able to get out to report on the news.”

Some were still rousing themselves from a long night when Publisher Ashton Phelps Jr. and top editors made the call about 10 a.m. Tuesday. “Get out! Get out!” they told their employees. “Everybody out!”

The journalists grabbed notepads, pens and laptop computers and rushed to the loading dock, where they jumped aboard eight or nine tractor-trailers that normally delivered newspapers.

One group left the caravan in Houma, where the Houma Courier, owned by the New York Times, provided a conference room and, later, its printing presses. Others went on to Baton Rouge, where they are working out of an office park and the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University.

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A drive that normally would have taken a couple of hours dragged on for more than six hours because of detours and, at one point, the loss of a truck operator. The driver reportedly unloaded his family and baggage and told the journalists he was going home. That left a business reporter and the manager of the paper’s computer operations to handle the 18-wheeler.

The reporters and editors dropped off in Houma managed to continue publishing on the website www.nola.com. During three days as solely an Internet publication, the site had about 25 million page hits a day, beyond the peak traffic it has drawn for Mardi Gras.

It was the first known interruption in the printed edition since 1837, when the paper began -- taking the name Picayune from a Spanish coin worth 6 1/4 cents, then the paper’s price.

The Times-Picayune returned Friday with 50,000 copies, each with two eight-page sections that had a handful of ads. That’s a far cry from a typical edition of six sections or more, but Amoss said: “It looks like a real newspaper.”

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A banner headline, “Help Us, Please,” mimicked the words shouted by a woman at the city’s convention center. And, in a front-page editorial the paper excoriated House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) for suggesting that much of New Orleans appeared beyond aid and might be bulldozed.

The paper’s editors said they hoped for a larger printing of today’s paper. But they also realized that a week of endless reporting had left much of their staff in a fragile state.

“A lot of these reporters are working, and then they will leave the phone and go cry against the wall,” said Jon Donley, editor of the paper’s website. “They are missing their homes, and many are looking for loved ones too.”

Amoss said he would demand that some of his staff begin to take time off this weekend -- if nothing else, to find a place to live, to buy some groceries or to simply get a tube of toothpaste.

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Long-term prospects for the Times-Picayune seem uncertain, with the region’s economy undermined.

During a conference call with the paper’s owner, based in New York, Amoss asked whether the chain might sell the Picayune.

Donald Newhouse, president of Advance Publications Inc., gave an unambiguous answer, Amoss said: “Absolutely not.”


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