August 31, 2006

The heroism of everyday journalism

As Ernesto churns into the Carolinas, my thoughts can’t help but turn to the folks of the Gulf Coast, who Tuesday marked the first anniversary of Katrina.

As a former editor-publisher of two community newspapers, I marveled at how local news outlets not only survived the storm, but also dug into the nitty-gritty of reporting the recovery — what they call “the never-ending story” — while much of the rest of the nation’s media turned its gaze elsewhere.

This summer I was afforded a rare glimpse into the lives of the community journalists for whom the Gulf Coast is not some exotic one-week disaster assignment, but home.

When all hell breaks loose, hometown newspapers are there not because journalists enjoy documenting the suffering of others, but because it’s their job to show and tell the human condition, what it looks and feels like to be in this place in this time when this event is happening – and to make meaning out of chaos.

As Katrina swept into the Gulf Coast a year ago, these “riders in the storm” weren’t passive detached observers, but citizen-journalists (or journalist-citizens) actively swept up in the storm surge of events larger than anything they’d ever covered before. Out went the notions of a detached, aloof unbiased press. The media outlets of the Gulf Coast could not observe dryly, “your end of the boat is sinking,” — for they were indeed — all in the same boat.

“Who would have thought that we would have been rendered back to the Stone Age, “ said Lance Davis, news editor of the Mississippi Press, 20,000-circulation daily in Pascagoula, speaking to the state press association’s annual gathering this summer in Biloxi. Without power and landlines, how do you put out a paper? Text messaging worked, Davis said, and somehow, after missing one day, the local paper was back on the streets on Aug. 30, thanks to the help of a sister paper in Mobile. “It was a cleansing experience,” Davis observed.

As a result of Katrina, Davis and other Gulf Coast editors learned critical lessons in crisis management. Now, the assumption is, “this WILL happen again,” he said, and they won’t be caught unprepared.

“Back up your (critical) files, and then back-up your back-ups,” advised Randy Ponder, editor of publisher of the twice-weekly Sea Coast Echo of Bay St. Louis. “It saved our butt!”

Stan Tiner, executive editor of the Biloxi Sun Herald, a 48,000-circulation daily, said the storm restored his faith in journalism. “When I saw my people sleeping under their desks, if they slept at all, you have to stand back in awe of journalism,” Tiner said, becoming emotional, “and it reminded me of the power of the local paper.”

The Sun Herald, with help from a sister paper in Columbus, Ga., kept right on publishing, proving to Gulfport-Biloxi citizens “that we weren’t whipped,” Tiner said. Getting those papers on the street was “the only indication out there that that any institution still worked.” Tiner said he was deeply moved by “the power of a newspaper to help keep a community alive when it most needed it.”

The Sun Herald gave the paper away free for six weeks, prompting Tiner to quip, “You’d be surprised how many newspapers you can sell when you give it away.”

As a result of their heroic efforts, Tiner’s Sun Herald was awarded the 2006 Pulitzer for public service. But Tiner said the Pulitzer was not nearly as important to him as the gratitude of readers.

That theme was echoed by other editors and publishers, including Norris Babin, co-publisher of two small New Orleans weeklies, the Belle Chasse Watchman and Plaquemines Gazette. When Katrina struck, Babin and his brother, Dale Benoit, fled westward, picking up generators at every Home Depot they could find along the way to Houston, where they regrouped, then returned and restarted the paper in four weeks. “We were just itching to publish!” vowed Babin.

And publish they did. But not just their own paper. “We were worried sick about the St. Bernard Voice,” Babin recalls, referring to a neighboring paper in Arabi, La., that Babin was sure had been swept away. “It was right by the levee,” Babin said gloomily.

As feared, the historic newspaper building was leveled. But there was some good news: Ed Roy, the plucky veteran publisher, had survived the storm unscathed. Babin and Benoit said they couldn’t just stand by, so they took Roy in and have published his paper for free ever since.

Babin said with a chuckle, “I think we adopted a grandfather.”

Such heroism of everyday life has not gone unnoticed. Readers look to their local papers as lifelines to normalcy. “There’s a tremendous interest in the paper now,” said Babin, “even when (readers) get it late — some of them are so happy to get the paper, they’re nearly in tears.”

Now a year later, Babin is cautiously optimistic about the future. Even though his parish has lost half of its businesses, he said, “We’re foundering and we’re praying. But I do see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

It would be hard to underestimate the importance of these community newspapers in the post-Katrina reconstruction era. While the major media may parachute in, do their thing, and then jet back to distant cities, the local papers stay put. Though they may be small, their impact is enormous. Their constancy, commitment and compassion deserve our attention.

One of these, the Enterprise-Journal of McComb, Miss, has a motto that pretty much says it all. Beneath the newspaper’s nameplate it reads, “The one newspaper in the world most interested in this community.”


Jock Lauterer teaches at the UNC-CH School of Journalism and Mass Communication where he may be reached at 962-6421 or

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