“I think this was a story where the journalists were way ahead of everyone,” said Steven Newhouse, the chairman of Advance.net and son of Advance Publications Inc. president Donald Newhouse, who owns the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Battered by Katrina, his staff had been among the first to watch the levees fail and the city flood. They’d distributed newspapers to places the National Guard claimed to be unable to reach. And they were the first to turn around to face the rest of the country and speak for their readers: “Help Us, Please,” a Sept. 2 headline read.
The New York Newhouses have forged a strong bond with the New Orleans daily, which was born in 1837 and at one time published William Faulkner and William Sidney Porter. The Newhouse family has owned The Times-Picayune since 1962, when S.I. Newhouse bought the paper. Norman Newhouse, the uncle of Condé Nast scion Si, moved to New Orleans in 1967 and kept an office in The Times-Picayune building for 20 years before his death in 1988. For the past 25 years, Donald Newhouse has met with Times-Picayune executives once a month.
“Everyone [in our family] has their own personal feelings about the paper,” Steven Newhouse said. “I certainly have close relationships with everyone down there.”
On Friday, the Newhouse family struck down an Internet rumor that The Times-Picayune would cease publication in the fallout from Katrina.
“For me,” Steven Newhouse said, “at a time when it’s fashionable to badmouth journalists, [the coverage of Katrina] shows the amazing dedication and craft of the people at The Times-Picayune and many other newspapers.
“I don’t want to comment on the government,” he said, before adding: “To say that a lot of people didn’t realize what was happening, they were just not watching the stories being put out.”
On the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 29, a pair of reporters from the Picayune had ventured out of the paper’s wind-lashed headquarters after the eye of hurricane Katrina had passed some 70 miles to the southeast of the city.
New Orleans had skirted the worst; television reporters stationed in New Orleans were quickly shuttled eastward along the gulf coast to the parts of Mississippi and Alabama where it was judged the storm took its heaviest toll.
These two local reporters were assigned to the local story, but found the national one: water, from neighboring Lake Pontchartrain, cascading violently through a breach in a broken levee along the 17th Street Canal.
The paper’s printing plant was incapacitated. And it was impossible for the reporters to find any official from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to comment on the breach. When The Times-Picayune put out a preliminary report on its Web site documenting the levee breach, it was without any comment from the federal government. It was clear to the newspaper staff that New Orleans was about to fall prey to the worst natural and humanitarian disaster on American soil anyone there could remember. It wasn’t clear who was listening.
“Normally,” Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss said by phone Sept. 5, “you’d expect there to be a press conference or a broadcast from FEMA. But here, journalists without any kind of officialdom backing them up were observing something firsthand and informing the public.”
In the teeming Superdome a day later, it was not uncommon to hear people complain that the thing they needed most was for someone to come in with a bullhorn and tell everyone what was going on. In 10 days of devastation following the hurricane, The Times-Picayune was as close as they would get.
As FEMA and Washington’s relief efforts sputtered, The Times-Picayune’s critical dispatches, including the prescient Aug. 29 report of the levee breach and the paper’s boosting editorial page, filled the void left by the sheer absence of any kind of government presence.
While national papers including The New York Times deployed scores of reporters—even Boldface scribe Campbell Robertson and sportswriter Jere Longman—The Times-Picayune told the local story by local reporters whose own homes and families were imperiled in Katrina’s devastating aftermath.
On Sept. 4, The Times-Picayune’s frustration with Washington’s negligence boiled over into a strident editorial that highlighted journalists’ ability to navigate New Orleans with the Bush administration’s claims the city was inaccessible to aid workers.
“Despite the city’s multiple points of entry,” the editorial read, “our nation’s bureaucrats spent days after last week’s hurricane wringing their hands, lamenting the fact that they could neither rescue the city’s stranded victims nor bring them food, water and medical supplies …. Meanwhile there were journalists, including some who work for The Times-Picayune, going in and out of the city via the Crescent City Connection …. Yet, the people trained to protect our nation, the people whose job it is to quickly bring in aid were absent. Those who should have been deploying troops were singing a sad song about how our city was impossible to reach.”
“I think it’s an expression of how most people of New Orleans are feeling,” said Mr. Amoss, the 57-year-old editor of The Times-Picayune, explaining his paper’s editorial. “It came from our reporters and photographers in the field observing and reporting the conditions in the city. It came from our readers’ frustration with the tardiness of the aid. It seemed the appropriate expression of the desperation of the community.
“To me,” Mr. Amoss continued, “the role of the editorial page is to look out for the best interests of the community. This was our expression of the unmet needs of the community in the wake of Katrina.”
The lag in action—between journalists on the ground reporting and the federal government’s absence—has defined the media’s coverage of Katrina. Whereas the Iraq war has been processed through press briefings, government statements and embedded reporters, Katrina’s tragedy played out raw, and unfiltered. And for the media’s righteous, or self-righteous, indignation over the plight of Katrina’s victims—think Anderson Cooper’s on-air shakedown of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu—The Times-Picayune’s local narrative, its “Help Us” headline, spoke louder than the national media’s “Help Them” reports.
“It’s a local story for them,” said Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet, whose brother Terry Baquet is a page-one editor at The Times-Picayune. “They’re telling it with more precision than any one of us can.”
At the outset of the disaster, The Times-Picayune Web site, NOLA.com, posted missing-person accounts that told of nightmare conditions in a city adrift. As of Sept. 5, the Missing Persons Database contained 22,592 people and averaged close to 30 million viewers.
“We’re the hometown newspaper of this diaspora that’s gathering in a huge arc around New Orleans and the South,” Mr. Amoss said. “Our role is to report in detail in a way that only a hometown newspaper can …. But also to be a voice for the community that instinctively will want to recreate and rebuild itself.”
But just telling that story has involved a surfeit of logistical hurdles. Currently, the staffers are editing print editions of The Times-Picayune from the first-floor offices at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication in Baton Rouge.
Last Tuesday, the morning after the paper published its first Web report of the levee breach, Mr. Amoss and the staff fled perilous conditions as water flooded into The Times-Picayune headquarters a mile from the Superdome. Two hundred and thirty staffers and family members piled into the paper’s fleet of delivery trucks and traversed deluged streets on their way to Houma, La., some 60 miles to the southwest.
“The fact they were evacuating was absolutely shocking,” Steven Newhouse said of his reaction when he learned his family’s paper was abandoning its headquarters. “It was even worse than everyone imagined.”
By Sept. 2, after publishing online editions for two days, the paper returned to print with 50,000 copies printed on presses loaned by The Courier in Houma. The paper has upped its print run to 60,000 copies and is currently producing a 16-page paper. Deadlines have shifted to work around The Courier’s print runs. Color appears on the front and back of each eight-page section, and the paper’s ad-sales department have sold space to insurance companies and businesses looking to reach customers affected by Katrina.
“We’ll increase our distribution as the markets come back,” Steven Newhouse said.
On Tuesday, Donald Newhouse traveled to Baton Rouge with his nephew Sam to meet with their staff in an empty office at the Florida Boulevard office park where the paper has a temporary space set up.
“He was there expressing his gratitude to all of us,” Mark Lorando, an editor who attended the meeting, said. “He was very gracious and humble in thanking everyone, and he used the word ‘heroic’ to describe the effort everyone put forth.”
After about five minutes of remarks, Mr. Newhouse opened the meeting to questions; a staff member thanked him for his promise, made last week, that the Newhouses would continue to pay all Times-Picayune employees through September and October, even if the hurricane prevented them from performing their job functions.
Mr. Amoss, who attended a second meeting at the Manship School of Mass Communication at L.S.U., where the paper has another temporary operation, said: “[Donald] expressed immense pride …. He just said he was surrounded by praise in New York, and it was tremendously gratifying.”
When hot newspaper sections go cold: The New York Times’ Sunday Styles section, chronicler-cum-incubator of elusive social trends, is struggling to recruit a staff reporter. According to sources familiar with the hiring process, The Times has been looking to fill an open position on the Sunday Styles desk for more than six months, and has yet to complete the protracted search.
Through a spokesperson, style editor Barbara Graustark confirmed that the position has been open since last year, but said there is no deadline to fill the post, and no decision has been made.
The open slot was vacated by reporter Alex Kuczynski. Ms. Kuczynski went on book leave in April 2003, then returned briefly last year, according to Ms. Graustark. She now pens the “Critical Shopper” column for the paper’s spin-off Thursday Styles section.
According to people familiar with the search, The Times has contacted both internal and external candidates who have declined to pursue the Styles opportunity. The paper was most recently in talks with Washington Post Style-section reporter Libby Copeland, according to a source familiar with the hiring process, but Ms. Copeland decided not to pursue the opportunity after interviewing at the Times in late August.
Ms. Copeland declined to comment on the proceedings.
“We’re always looking for great people inside the paper and outside the paper,” Ms. Graustark said in a phone conversation.
The section last made a hire in the summer of 2004, when it lured New York magazine writer Alex Williams. Mr. Williams and Warren St. John are the only two full-time Sunday Styles reporters (“Man Date” scribe Jennifer 8. Lee contributes from her regular assignment on the Metro desk).
The outflow from Sunday Styles may continue. On Aug. 9, Jennifer Tung, a freelancer who writes for the “What I’m Wearing Now” column, accepted a full-time job at In Style, where she’ll be a senior beauty editor.
Gentlemen, stop your engines! Racing Fan, the NASCAR magazine prepared by Time Inc.’s Time4 Media division, has coasted to a halt on pit road. According to sources familiar with the project, the company put the red-state-targeted magazine on indefinite hold after publishing two test issues this year.
Time4 Media published a debut issue in March and a second in May, with an initial distribution of 250,000. The magazine featured an oversize format à la ESPN the Magazine, and the May issue fronted the twisted wreckage of Ryan Newman’s 2003 Daytona 500 car in mid-flip on the cover as part of an “Amazing Crashes” package promising “unbelievable pictures inside!”
Currently, the five-person staff has moved on to other projects. Most recently, Sam Syed, Racing Fan’s art director, has been reassigned to Popular Science, where he is design director.
A Time4 Media spokesperson declined to comment on Racing Fan’s status.
“There are no future issues on the publishing calendar at this time,” a spokesperson said. “Our intention has always been to evaluate the two issues before making plans to go forward.”
New York Times pundit standings, Aug. 30-Sept. 5
1. (tie) Paul Krugman, score 22.0 [previous rank*: 3rd]
Frank Rich, 22.0 [1st]
3. David Brooks, 18.5 [no rank]
4. Maureen Dowd, 14.0 [2nd]
5. Bob Herbert, 10.5 [4th]
6. John Tierney 0.0 [5th]
The hurricane hit New Orleans on Aug. 29, but it didn’t hit the Op-Ed pages till Sept. 2. Once it got there, though, it kept gathering strength. Only one pre-Katrina piece by an Op-Ed columnist made the week’s Most E-Mailed list: Maureen Dowd on Hillary Clinton, at No. 23 (and kudos to Ms. Dowd for finally shoehorning in a reference to that redheads-feel-less-pain study). And only one post-Katrina pundit missed the list: John Tierney, who took the occasion to compare and contrast the incentive structures behind fire insurance and flood insurance.
*Due to a failure to check and archive the Most E-Mailed List on the appropriate day, the pundit standings from Aug. 23-Aug. 29 were lost to history.