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Paper Chronicles New Orleans Recovery, Advocates for City’s Survival

March 27, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: Dawn in New Orleans, where the home delivery of a newspaper can seem like a small miracle. In some parts of the city now, the Times-Picayune, the only daily newspaper here, is delivered and read with the morning coffee.

But on block after block in many neighborhoods, there is little life — certainly no newspaper delivery — but a great deal of news. Like so many local institutions, the 169-year-old Times-Picayune has found itself tested by Katrina in unprecedented ways.

JIM AMOSS, Editor, The Times-Picayune: There’s nothing to equal this, both in our personal lives and in our journalistic careers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jim Amoss has been the editor of the paper for 16 years, a reporter in New Orleans since 1974.

JIM AMOSS: We journalists also personally had every bit as much at stake as our readers did. It was our houses, but it was also their houses that were being flooded, and it was our city that was going under, as well as theirs. It gave us a personal investment in this story, the likes of which I’ve never seen.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Times-Picayune, Amoss says, now has unusual dual roles: to cover the news about the devastation and reconstruction, yes, but also to help heal the city’s soul and advocate on its behalf.

As editor of both the news and editorial pages, Amoss has published blunt editorials calling for federal help on the front page. In an open letter to the president, the paper called for the firing of then-FEMA Director Michael Brown.

And Amoss wrote a passionate op-ed in the Washington Post titled, “Do Not Forsake Us,” demanding “word from Washington that a great American city will not be left to die.”

JIM AMOSS: If being concerned about the very existence of your town is advocacy, then I plead guilty. When your very livelihood, and city, and community, and everything that’s familiar to you is at sake and, in many cases, destroyed, it changes how you view the reporting of the news. You still have the same journalistic standards that are applied to stories, but every topic has an urgency.

JEFFREY BROWN: Everyone in New Orleans, it seems, has an incredible Katrina story, and that includes the Picayune’s journalists. As Katrina hit on August 29th, some 240 employees and their relatives gathered at the paper’s offices to wait out the storm and to put out an online version of the paper with power from a generator.

Later that day, as the national media, largely camped out in the French Quarter, were reporting the worst was over…

REPORTER: … but late word is the levees did hold.

JEFFREY BROWN: …some Picayune staffers fanned out into their city to see things firsthand.

JIM AMOSS: They crossed one of the main boulevards near the lake, Canal Boulevard, and looked down. And there, beneath them, was not a road, but a river rushing, a rushing current toward downtown. And it was at that moment that they realized that we had not dodged the bullet and that a key levee had broken.

JEFFREY BROWN: When floodwaters started to lap at the front steps of the Picayune building, staffers and their families piled into newspaper delivery trucks and slowly headed through 2 1/2-foot waters toward Baton Rouge, an 80-mile journey that took seven hours.

JIM AMOSS: Everybody, from the publisher on down to the lowliest clerk, sat on the floor in the backs of the delivery trucks.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sixteen staffers volunteered to return to New Orleans to report, while those in Baton Rouge also fed material to a group of Picayune journalists at a small paper in Houma, Louisiana.

There they put out an online paper on the Picayune’s associated Web site, NOLA.com. The paper was laid out like a real print paper and generated some 30 million page views per day, up from the usual 700,000.

The next day, the Baton Rouge staff produced another online version, headlined “Hitting Bottom.” By the end of that first week, the staff produced a small print paper, with the help of the Houma Courier. The papers were trucked to shelters and distributed free to people in Houston, Baton Rouge, and all over Louisiana.

JIM AMOSS: We realized two things: One, this is our backyard, and we better know it well, and we better know what’s happening to it better than anybody; and, two, that our city was emptied of its readers and that they were scattered all over the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: That first day, veteran photographer Ted Jackson and seven fellow photographers stayed in New Orleans to continue working, even as the waters rose.

TED JACKSON, The Times-Picayune: When I first left the newspaper office, I was in — actually, it was a rowboat. It was about five hours of paddling past people.

And just a few minutes later, I see a man standing on the edge of a ramp going up a bridge, standing there all alone surrounded by water, and I thought that would make a good picture. And I raised the camera. And he looks at me through the lens, and he does this.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean, like, what are you doing?

TED JACKSON: As if, “You’re going to shoot my picture and not come save me?” And it was one of those gut-wrenching moments that I made a decision that, if I couldn’t save people, I couldn’t shoot their picture, either.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jackson did go on to help rescue people, as well as to shoot hundreds of images of desperation and courage, part of the Picayune’s coverage that helped shape the nation’s picture of what was really happening.

TED JACKSON: This man was waiting for help to come for him.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Picayune was able to move back into its building at the beginning of October. Out of necessity, it was now almost completely a Katrina paper, telling many stories every day and offering vital information on insurance, rebuilding, legal, education and health assistance.

It also launched a continuing series of stories called “Lives Lost,” well-rounded obituaries of Katrina victims.

TIMES-PICAYUNE REPORTER: We have a Katrina archive section.

JEFFREY BROWN: NOLA.com continued its role as an electronic bulletin board, early on for people awaiting rescue…

TIMES-PICAYUNE REPORTER: … friends still trapped at St. Charles Hospital.

JEFFREY BROWN: … and then for those seeking loved ones in the storm’s aftermath.

LARRY LORENZ, Loyola University New Orleans: The Times-Picayune became essential to people since then. We have not wanted to miss it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Loyola University communications professor Larry Lorenz is a longtime reader of the paper and a student of the role newspapers, at their best, play in their communities.

LARRY LORENZ: In the civil war, Oliver Wendell Holmes, the father of the later Supreme Court justice, wrote an essay called “Bread and the Newspaper.” And in it, he said, “Bread and the newspapers we must have.”

JEFFREY BROWN: So you’ve got to eat and people need information?

LARRY LORENZ: You bet. The information that’s in the newspaper feeds us as much as the bread feeds us.

BRUCE NOLAN, The Times-Picayune: Is there any more demolition going on in…

JEFFREY BROWN: During our visit, reporter Bruce Nolan covered the first home demolitions in the impoverished Lower Ninth Ward of the city, talking to officials…

BRUCE NOLAN: Do you encounter neighbors when you’re doing this work?

JEFFREY BROWN: … and interviewing residents, such as Yvonne Wise, who’d returned from Houston to see the demolition in her neighborhood.

BRUCE NOLAN: You lost your business. You lost your home, too?

FEMALE KATRINA VICTIM: Yes, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nolan calls himself a lifer. He grew up in New Orleans and spent his entire career at the paper.

BRUCE NOLAN: There’s only one story in New Orleans, and we’re all going to be writing about this story for the rest of our careers, in one way or another.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the editorial meeting that afternoon, Nolan’s demolition story was made the lead for the next day’s paper…

TIMES-PICAYUNE EMPLOYEE: So we’ll take demolish here, right?

JEFFREY BROWN: … and the photographers pick from thousands of possible images they’d shot that day.

TIMES-PICAYUNE EMPLOYEE: Oh, the light was terrible here.

JEFFREY BROWN: The paper’s front page began to take shape. And a bit before midnight, the presses rolled, and the day’s cycle was completed, the Lower Ninth demolition story front and center.

The next morning, we joined longtime Picayune reader Willie Picket, who makes his living taking tourists for horse-and-buggy rides through the French Quarter. A Katrina evacuee, he’s now back working on his damaged home.

WILLIE PICKET, KATRINA EVACUEE: It’s putting our story out, because so many people they might see — like, if they see film of the Mardi Gras, they’ll say, “Well, this is cool. The city looks fine to me.”

But, I mean, there are so many other parts of the city that literally look like a war zone. Putting that out, you know, helps maybe people see that the city still needs a lot of help.

JEFFREY BROWN: According to the paper’s latest figures, paid daily circulation is now around 200,000, including a healthy readership in New Orleans’ suburbs. That’s down from a daily high of about 267,000 pre-Katrina. In a city with fewer people and businesses, it’s clear the paper faces major financial challenges.

LARRY LORENZ: There have been days, though, when there hasn’t been any advertising at all…

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Lorenz says the paper’s owner, Advanced Publications, a Newhouse family chain, will have to continue to play a major role for the paper to survive.

LARRY LORENZ: I don’t think there are a great many advantages to chain journalism, but I think, in this case, it is a major advantage because we need this newspaper. And if it were on its own, it might well fold, but I don’t think the Newhouse people will let it fold.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lorenz also thinks other papers could learn something from what he sees as the Picayune’s newfound edge and muscle.

LARRY LORENZ: Papers across the country are losing subscribers. And it may be that they’re losing subscribers because they tend to be bland, they tend to be overly objective, and maybe we ought to be a little more involved, a little more excited about telling the stories that really need to be told. And I think that the Picayune reporters are that way about this story.

JIM AMOSS: The thing that changed us, I think, is that we had suddenly such a definite, strong, well-defined mission. And we had to put out something that was people’s lifeline every day, and it was great therapy for us.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, the success of the Picayune and the revival of its city will be measured one paper at a time.