April 15, 1998
The Grand Forks North Dakota Herald was announced the winner of the Pulitzer Prize Public Service award yesterday for their coverage of the Red River floods that devastated the town a year ago. Fred De Sam Lazaro of KTCA-St. Paul Minneapolis told the newspaper story in a report then, and the NewsHour takes a second look tonight.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The headline in yesterday's Grand Forks Herald was both descriptive of the city and a triumph for its newspaper. Its building was gutted, along with nearly 120 years of history recorded in its archives. By surviving to record perhaps the most devastating event in Grand Forks history, the Herald preserved for its residents the one remaining link to their abandoned community, according to editor Mike Jacobs.
MIKE JACOBS, Editor: Our people are scattered everywhere, and there's no--there's nothing tangible about Grand Forks anymore, except the Herald. So in a weird sort of way Grand Forks is now the Herald. It's the tangible part of Grand Forks. And we just really feel like it's important--it's a great mission to keep that part of the community alive and vital while we go through this incredible, searing pain. Many people are depending on us, I think, to sort of represent the community while it's in the diaspora.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The Herald is depending on the facilities of the Pioneer Press, a corporate sibling 200 miles to the South in St. Paul. The nerve center--the newsroom--has moved about 10 miles West to the Manvel North Dakota Public School in what normally serves as the seventh grade classroom. What's close is the deadline to get stories to St. Paul. The usual deadline--11 PM--is now advanced five hours. That puts even more pressure on reporters and editors dealing with the last-minute rush, plus the late-breaking story yesterday of one more community in potential danger.
MIKE JACOBS: (talking to staff) Can we get somebody to make a quick phone to Deep River Falls? Apparently the lake is leaking, and they're sandbagging the town. There's a dam above Deep River Falls. So we need to get somebody to call--the Hennington county sheriff. Suzie's going to do it.
SUE ELLYN SCALETTA, Reporter: (on phone) Hi. This is Sue Ellyn Scaletta with the Grand Forks Herald. We've had a report that you got a--the lake is leaking, and something is coming under the dam, and you're sandbagging, is that right?
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Copy editor Dale Stensgaard came to Scaletta's assistance. He tried first to buy her more time from St. Paul, where the paper was being laid out for the presses.
DALE STENSGAARD, Copy Editor: We're supposed to have our stories to you in seven minutes, but how much time do they have to paginate and do a quick update, if they have to? All right. Well, I'm going to call AP. You know, if that reservoir overflows, you just have to have it.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: As Scaletta rushed to complete her story, Stensgaard alerted the wire service to keep abreast of any developments. (STAFF DISCUSSING ARTICLE)
SPOKESMAN: We have a crib sheet for--
SUE ELLYN SCALETTA: Do you want to put a headline on there?
SPOKESMAN: Yeah. We'll do that.
SUE ELLYN SCALETTA: Do you have the name of the dam?
SPOKESMAN: No, we don't. It probably doesn't have a name.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Finally the story was ready to go to St. Paul, about 20 minutes after Editor Jacobs passed along his tip.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: How much time do you have?
MIKE JACOBS: Minus 15 seconds. It should be there at 6 o'clock, but most of the stories are there. We're just sending the last ones up now.
SPOKESMAN: Chris is entering the last story now.
SPOKESMAN: Incredible. Incredible
SPOKESMAN: We've got to start writing and editing earlier.
MIKE JACOBS: We're going to have a meeting. Last night my biggest priority was to get everybody eight hours of sleep. I saw you in the middle of the night, and it wasn't a pretty sight.
NEWS PERSON: No. I felt awful.
MIKE JACOBS: We did it again under really--(applause from staff)--under really what I thought today were the most trying circumstances.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The adrenalin rush wore off quickly as Editor Jacobs discussed various logistical concerns--finding a printing plant that's closer by, how to coexist with schoolchildren when they return, payroll time cards. The list got under Jacobs' skin by the time it reached a persistent staff request for more cell phones.
MIKE JACOBS: Quit bugging me about the telephones! You know, you're driving me to distraction with these logistical questions when all I really want to be doing is putting out a newspaper. You know, we're trying our best to solve the logistical problems. I can't--
STAFF MEMBER: We're asking questions, Mike.
MIKE JACOBS: This is the only question any of you have asked me today. Can I have a cell phone? Yes, God damn it; when I get 'em, I'll give you one. I get the first one.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Fatigue was clearly taking its toll. Moving and publishing a newspaper from scratch, covering a 500-year flood, and never far from consciousness, nagging worries and regrets.
MIKE JACOBS: And when I think about what I wish I'd taken with me--I mean, it's a very long list, but the thing that's worst about it probably is the personal things that editors at the Herald have done over the years. You know, my predecessors did a day book in Grand Forks history that I was trying to keep up. It can't be replaced. Ryan Bawkn, who is our sports editor, was writing a book, and he had given me the proofs--not the proofs but the printout--and they were in my briefcase. I was going to take them home with me. They were in his pile of books. They're both in the building--I mean, that's all gone. So the past and the potential, I mean, we each mourn--we mourn for different things.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: You haven't started to think about what happens at home either, I suspect, most of you?
MIKE JACOBS: Well, Suzanne and I have agreed that it's only stuff. I mean, it's stuff that I really like, it's stuff that I paid a lot of money for. It's stuff that I've collected all my life. I mean, I had one of the--one of the finest collections of North Dakota books in existence. I worked assiduously for 40 years, 35 years to collect it. I've been collecting rare bird books. I have books that are irreplaceable, and I miss them.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For most staffers here the intense routine, the cramped quarters all provided distraction from the immense personal cost everyone here must pay.
SUE ELLYN SCALETTA: You watch the coverage on TV, and you watch the footage, and you watch--go by my house--go down Boyd Drive so you can see what your house is doing--but at the same time you don't really want to know. It's not something--you can't handle all of it at once, so emotionally you just sort of put yourself on "hold" and get out and get the story, even though you're part of the story in a sense.
MIKE JACOBS: It's an unimaginable event. I mean, this has not ever happened, and, you know, we had all the science, we had all the predictions, we had all the elevation maps, you know. We were out there. We literally wore ourselves out. I mean, I still hurt from sandbagging. You know, we wore ourselves out, and we knew we were going to win because we've always won before. And it just didn't occur to us that the river has that kind of power.