“Yuko had forbidden her to watch TV or get on the Internet, but Kathy couldn’t resist. She searched for her husband’s name. She searched for their address, their company. She searched for any sign that her husband had been found. She found nothing about him, but found other, terrible things. All over the web she found news of the violence and evidence of its overstatement. One page would report hundreds of murders, crocodiles in the water, gangs of men rampaging. Another page would report that no babies had been raped. That there had been no murders in the Superdome, no deaths in the Convention Center. There was no end to the fear and confusion, the racist assumptions and rumor-mongering.”
Dave Eggers’ bestselling book Zeitoun, from which the above excerpt is taken, recounts the true story of a man’s experience paddling through the submerged city of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. His family endured torture from Bâton Rouge, Phoenix, Spain and Syria as they were bombarded with images from the media’s apocalyptic portrayal of the storm, and yet the practical information they would have needed in order to help him was out of reach.
In times of emergency, quick access to accurate information can be a life or death matter. During a storm like Hurriane Katrina in 2005, or Hurricane Isaac, which made landfall in the U.S. Gulf Coast last week, sources of information such as newspapers, websites, and broadcasters play a vital role in the day-to-day lives of those affected.
When Advance Publications, a media company that runs newspapers and websites in more than 25 U.S. cities, announced this spring that its New Orleans daily newspaper, the Times-Picayune, would be reducing its print frequency to three days a week, letting go 200 employees, and refocusing as a digital publication by merging with website nola.com to form the Nola Media Group, many commentators immediately brought up Katrina.
The 175 year-old newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the deadly hurricane. Braving treacherous conditions, its staff camped out in the newspaper’s offices, working around the clock to provide the community with information about the storm. When power outages rendered printing impossible for three days, they filed updates, stories, images and infographics online at nola.com.
“The Times-Picayune became a life-line for those trying to rebuild,” according to a report by PBS Newshour. Larry Lorenz, a professor of communications at Loyola University, drew a parallel: “In the Civil War era, Oliver Wendell Holmes, he 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,” said Lorenz. “The information that’s in the newspaper feeds us as much as the bread feeds us.”
The question this spring was whether, with drastic cuts facing the Times-Picayune, residents of the greater New Orleans area would go hungry when the next big storm hit.
At first glance, it would appear that they did not. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon reported that, once again, employees refused to let power cuts and extreme conditions get in the way of their work; by printing the paper in Mobile, Alabama, and thanks to drivers who braved strong winds and pelting rain to deliver copies in Louisiana, the Times-Picayune did not miss a single day of publication, said Publisher Ricky Mathews.
Meanwhile, James O’Byrne, Editor of the still-separate nola.com (the merger takes place in October), told Beaujon that the site’s traffic quadrupled during Isaac, with 614,000 unique visitors on Wednesday alone, and reporters (some of whom were sleeping in the newsroom on air mattresses in the lead-up to the storm) had posted 550 items on the hurricane page by Thursday night.
All in all, the combined coverage by the Times-Picayune and nola.com seems to have done an even better job of serving the New Orleans metro area community during Isaac than it did during Katrina. This was not only because the storm was less destructive, and the city better prepared; for the first time, “readers’ use of social media [was] a big part of the news organization’s coverage,” said O’Byrne, meaning that journalists had far more eyes and ears on the ground.
On Twitter, Nola staff promoted hashtags populated by reporters, weather experts, rescue workers and citizens. Gathered here were minute-to-minute weather reports, links to information about the science of the storm, tips about food and water access, missing people, and other facts of the kind that, had they been available during Katrina, would have saved the Zeitoun family from much of the grief that they experienced.
Reporters also took photos and videos with their smartphones, uploading them near-instantly alongside “raw footage from residents that, while perhaps less polished, still told a story and told it well.” In short, as University of Southern Mississippi Communications Professor Gina Masullo Chen argues, journalists' multiplatform, real-time coverage during Isaac offered a promising example of how today’s digital tools can improve a news organization's disaster coverage.
Indeed, as the Times-Picayune’s Editor Jim Amoss wrote in a June editorial, the outstanding online work by Times-Picayune staff in 2005 was part of the justification for the newspaper's shift to a digital-first brand.
“In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we proved that great, essential journalism does not require newsprint and a printing press,” Amoss wrote. “What it does require is great journalists, people who know our city and have a sense of mission about keeping readers informed and engaged, no matter the obstacles.”
This is where the true disaster may yet be on the horizon. As Beaujon and others have pointed out, the cuts in print frequency and staff have not yet taken effect in New Orleans. The Times-Picayune is due to drop from a daily to a Wednesday-Friday-Sunday publication beginning October 1, and three quarters of the staff who are due to be laid off as part of the cuts had agreed to stay until the end of September, and thus participated in covering Hurricane Isaac. Besides this, many new online hires had already been made, further swelling the ranks.
While employees of both the Times-Picayune and nola.com did outstanding work last week, Hurricane Isaac was not a proper test of whether the future Nola Media Group will weather the cuts it is about to face.
“So what happens during the next hurricane season?” Beaujon asked the future heads of the merged entity. Amoss did not reply to Beaujon’s query, but had written in a memo to newsroom staff in May that the “reporting arm will be at least comparable to what it is now” in the media group's new incarnation. Mathews, who becomes president of Nola Media Group next month, admitted: “We haven’t nailed that down,” adding that “plans will always be developed based on the current situation.” Whether that arm will be able to exhibit the same tireless strength when wrestling with the next major storm as it did with both Katrina and Isaac remains to be seen.
Image courtesy of U.S. Navy via Flickr Creative Commons