Survival First, Then Needed Newsroom Adjustments
‘All of the silos were leveled, and the Sun Herald newsroom became a blended team with an intense Katrina focus.’
Hurricane Katrina’s winds and punishing rains assaulted the fortress/newspaper structure and tore at the roof with a vengeance. The building sprang leaks, and water flooded many areas, including the newsroom, which in the electric-less days of September that followed created a sauna-like atmosphere. But as the hurricane moved northward, devastating regions 150 miles and more inland, the building was still standing, a testament to a good plan and thoughtful design. In the two years since that fateful August 29th, I have sometimes thought about how the Sun Herald’s newsroom team is like the building, or at least it is an organic extension of the total idea of survivability — strong and steadfast.
To live constantly in the hurricane zone requires a mental toughness and grittiness not unlike the building’s design. Though a glass-dominated structure denoting openness might be appropriate somewhere else, strong and solid works better here. For our staff, Katrina was not their first hurricane test. Many chart their careers by the named storms that have battered our coast, each presenting unique coverage challenges. The storms are a part of newsroom lore, but none has approached the destructive scale and challenge of this one.
On the Saturday before Katrina leveled Mississippi’s Gulf Coast on Monday, we had a staff meeting in our newsroom. Publisher Ricky Mathews and I described the future in sober, even prophetic, terms, delivering two basic messages. Be safe and get out of harm’s way was the first. The second was that our lives, personal and professional, would never be the same.
Good fortune accounted for the paper suffering no casualties, though we did not know that for many days because of the lack of communication. Yet 60 employee homes were completely destroyed; almost none of our 240 employees were spared significant damage.
As reporters, photographers and editors assessed the damage, we quickly recognized that the scale of this event was epic and that it would be necessary to reorganize our approach to newsgathering in response to the new reality. So we exploded our newsgathering departmental and beat structures. All of the silos were leveled, and the Sun Herald newsroom became a blended team with an intense Katrina focus. There were no more business reporters, sports reporters, or features writers. Everyone was a news reporter — and newspaper delivery person, I might add, as every employee’s honorable duty was to distribute papers to people wherever they were encountered on our daily rounds.
Katrina also taught us that the Sun Herald is much more than a “newspaper;” through its Web site, it can be a multimedia powerhouse whose informational reach is worldwide. Even as we delivered the print edition to families in the shattered ruins of their coastal homes, Sunherald.com was flowing the news from the disaster zone to the hundreds of thousands who had evacuated and were hungry for stories told by their hometown news source.
The Web site and newspaper also became a powerful intersection, a place where families connected after the storm as pleas for survivor information were cross-published in an unending conversation. Web traffic exploded in those days and later, and through our tracking method we’ve been able to observe the phenomena of population relocation and the steady return of evacuees to the Gulf Coast region. From this experience we quickly achieved “Web equity” in our internal thinking about news cycles, and this empowered the Sun Herald not only to have the greatest breadth and depth in local news reporting in our region but also to realize the dream of every editor — to be first with the news as well.
As a consequence, our Web site is more robust than before the storm. To each person in our newsroom today, getting words and images on the Web site is no longer the last thing to do in news production; it’s the first.
Creating New Beats
The home team should always own a distinct advantage in any post-disaster circumstance, and that was certainly true after Katrina in South Mississippi. Sun Herald reporters knew the people and the places, though it was difficult to locate community leaders in towns spread across the Gulf Coast. Communities no longer resembled their prestorm selves, making it all but impossible to discern where Gulfport ended and Long Beach began. All of the landmarks were gone. Also, as soon as the levees collapsed in New Orleans, the giant sucking sound heard in South Mississippi was much of the national media’s quick exodus to the west. This led to a sense here that people who had just experienced the worst natural disaster in America’s history were being forgotten in their hour of greatest need. Our paper published a front page editorial headlined “Mississippi’s Invisible Coast.” This circumstance brought an awesome responsibility to our staff that would now become the primary source of the daily news told about the plight of our region and its people.
We took this task with great seriousness. For a while adrenaline carried the team through endless days, but we soon had to learn how to pace our work to keep the staff functioning and in the game, physically and mentally. As time moved on we had to create new beats to adjust to changing circumstances. Before Katrina, an insurance beat didn’t seem so important, but we soon realized it would be of vital interest to people of our region. Transportation would become a key news topic as the rebuilding of hundreds of miles of streets and roads and a billion dollars plus of promised bridge work required close attention. For this assignment, we redeployed Don Hammack, who’d been a sports writer and who had studied engineering. Our watchdog role — holding those responsible for rebuilding activities accountable — has never been more important. With so much money being spent, the stakes are high in terms of the recovery and rebuilding of our region being done right.
Even as the Sun Herald returned to being a “full-service” newspaper — with business, sports, features, comics and so on — we were constantly accommodating the changing dynamics in the post-Katrina world. With 65,000 homes destroyed and more than 55,000 heavily damaged, almost everyone was involved in some rebuilding project as tens of thousands were making the decision to move away from the beach to higher land above the highway. To respond, we created a new section of the paper called “@home,” offering approaches to home design and refurbishment with advice to readers who were looking for help on rebuilding projects. A copy editor/designer was moved to edit this section.
South Mississippi was, and to a large extent still is, something like the Wild West during the land-rush period. So we created a beat in our business section dedicated to real estate coverage; there readers can track this information, as much as possible, amid the chaos of recovery. And when a plethora of public health issues followed the storm, we hired a reporter for that beat, Joshua Norman, and he has covered those stories, as much remains unknown about the true impact of the storm on people’s mental and physical well being. There are grave concerns about what the long-term impact of air, water and soil-based contamination might produce, and trauma to such a large population is uncharted with consequences measured now in suicides, violent crime, and drug use. The mental health impact on children is also a matter of great worry.
Switching Norman to this beat took us into welcomed but uncharted waters, with the idea I had of creating a medical writer position supported by foundation funding. Seeking such external support to hire a highly specialized journalist might become commonplace, but as we went about doing it we were reminded of its newness. My concept was fairly clear and somewhat developed, at least in my mind. I thought that a person, perhaps a medical doctor with good communication skills, could be hired as a staff writer for the Sun Herald for a two-year period, and that position would be supported by a foundation. In the third year, this person would deliver a book chronicling the health issues following Katrina. I thought this combination would produce much-needed daily journalism about this topic and provide important findings for the medical profession. I pitched the idea to a few foundations, and there appeared to be some interest, but then nothing came of those conversations.
Then, when I spoke to a conference sponsored by the Nieman Foundation last fall that was focused on “The Next Big Health Crisis — And How to Cover It,” Penny Duck ham, executive director of the Kaiser Media Fellowships, was in the audience, and she was drawn to this idea. Duckham said she would help us, and her foundation has made good on the promise with support for not one but two reporters who will be examining long-term health issues that confront this region. Norman, the staff-writer who was shifted to the health beat, has been selected a Kaiser Fellow and will spend nine months reporting on long-term mental trauma. And Kaiser is also generously providing a health intern who will be covering daily health news during this time.
Though our focus is “all Katrina all the time,” we cannot forego our other responsibilities as a newspaper. Some of our best investigative reporting has involved coverage of the death of an inmate at the Harrison County Jail, a story requiring almost the full services of Robin Fitzgerald since the paper first reported the beating death of Jessie Lee Williams, Jr. in February 2006. The Sun Herald has been out front on this story ever since, as more and more has been learned about a pattern of abuse at the jail that federal prosecutors allege goes back years and involves many of the jail’s employees as participants and hundreds of prisoners as victims. Six jailers have already pleaded guilty to related federal charges, and the investigation continues.
These two years since Katrina have proven, too, the value and power of editorial pages at a time when some question their relevance in the digital era. Every week involves some major political decision in a local town or the legislature or Congress. Heavy is the weight placed on our editorial board members, as they need to educate themselves about a vast range of issues so they can “speak truth to power.”
Journalism happens despite the fulcrum of personal issues that so many on our staff have endured and continue to confront. Stress is an all-too-familiar guest in our newsroom, one not welcomed but whose presence is by now well understood. Even as we tell the stories of the difficulties and challenges in people’s lives — tracking the twists, turns, tears and frustration so common among members of our community — our paper’s reporters and photographers, and those who direct them, somehow find the strength to deal with their own struggles to rebuild and recover.
Stan Tiner, a 1986 Nieman Fellow, is executive editor of the Sun Herald in Biloxi/Gulfport, Mississippi.
The Sun Herald building on the Gulfport side of DeBuys Road lies within sight of the Mississippi Sound. Built after Hurricane Camille, it is squat and solid in appearance; its narrow windows and thick walls deliberately present a fortress-like statement against the attacks of storms that visit our coast sometimes. The architectural design is but one play in the chess match of survivability against nature’s inevitable challenges; the other is strategic placement — just north of the CSX railroad tracks that traverse the coast and serve as an important defensive mechanism against tidal surge.