Covering the Quake

gupta on cnn2 Covering the QuakeWhen major newspapers around the country don’t have Haiti bureaus, what happens when disaster strikes?

Last Tuesday evening, hours after the earthquake hit Haiti, the L.A. Times’ New York correspondent Tina Susman got the call. She found a JetBlue flight that was taking off to Santo Domingo a little after midnight, bought the ticket, packed a small bag, ran out the door and arrived in Haiti early Wednesday morning.

Ms. Susman has seen disaster before: She covered the tsunami, she was the L.A. Times Baghdad bureau chief, she’s been to Somalia, she covered Africa.

“We’ve taken such a pounding, so it’s nice to show that we still do this,” said Bruce Wallace, the L.A. Times’ foreign editor, referring to the perception about the L.A. Times in recent years. “You can’t just crank up for this story, either; you have to be organized to go wherever, whenever.”

The crisis in Haiti is a potent reminder to the Sam Zells of the world, who are finding the quickest ways to kill off once-great papers like the L.A. Times: Reporting is expensive, and the Haiti story is a reminder why you keep experienced newshounds on your payroll.

Not surprisingly, the papers that have benefited most in recent days have been the ones who already value foreign reporting. The New York Times has six reporters on the ground, along with five photographers (which has included prize-caliber material from photographer Damon Winter); The Wall Street Journal, at its high-water mark, had nine reporters on the ground; The Washington Post has seven reporters and two photographers; the L.A. Times has three reporters; Time magazine has three reporters and three photographers.

“My own feeling is, we have to have an extended commitment to the story,” said Susan Chira, The New York Times’ foreign editor. “We’ll have big numbers for a while, diminishing numbers and from there we’ll have frequent check-ins.”

By last Wednesday, once it was clear how significant an event the earthquake was, all Ms. Chira had to do was shake a bush and reporters with familiarity with the country or with disaster scenes came tumbling out: Marc Lacey, the current Mexico City bureau chief, has had experience in Haiti; Ginger Thompson, a Washington reporter, has worked there as well; Debbie Sontag, an investigations reporter, has written many stories from Haiti; and Damien Cave, the paper’s Miami bureau chief, was stationed in Iraq for more than a year.

Likewise, The Journal’s foreign editor, Rebecca Blumenstein, said the paper chose “global correspondents who have deep experience with tragedy like this and are well equipped to dive into any situation.”

Though a paper like the L.A. Times gets credit for sending out reporters—and maintaining 13 foreign bureaus—other Tribune-owned papers have shut down whatever foreign bureaus they had, and now they rely solely on Mr. Wallace’s team.

Aside from the usual suspects, the Daily News, a paper with no foreign bureaus, sent two reporters. 

“I think it is hard to reflect the real emotion of a story like this by trying to rewrite wire stories,” said Martin Dunn, the editor of the Daily News. “I think you’ve got to be there to get that personal, very, very emotional feel for a story. That’s what our reporters gave us. This is not a facts-and-figures story. This is human drama, and human-interest and human-suffering story.”

(The News’ rival, the Post, has elected not to make a big investment in Haiti, opting instead to go with copy from the News Corp.–owned Times of London).

The reporters who have made the trip describe a war zone. “I thought I’d be coming for five to seven days, and now I have no idea when I’ll be leaving,” said Mr. Cave, the New York Times reporter. “There are so many stories I want to tell. It’s an intense experience. I’ve seen more dead bodies than I ever saw in Iraq.”

And then there’s the logistical nightmare: a lack of food, a lack of electricity, phones that cut out and plenty of hotels that do not have running water. “It’s something you can do for one or two days, but it cuts into your ability to report,” said Ms. Susman. “You can spend all your time navigating the logistical headaches. Will I be able to plug in my computer long enough to charge the battery to actually write my story to actually file? There was one night where I had to poach electricity from a colleague’s private little generator; otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to file. When you add the fact that you can’t shower, flush a toilet and every day you’re out walking in this incredible devastation, it starts to make it really difficult to focus solely on the story and reporting because you’re so concerned with meeting your own basic needs, as opposed to really what should be your focus, other people’s basic needs, which are not being met here.”