October 15, 2007

North Dakota journalism students come to aid of rural newspaper and town devastated by tornado

While Jock Lauterer's students at North Carolina are helping a newspaper stay afloat while its editor-publisher recovers from major surgery, those in a community journalism class at the University of North Dakota have come to the aid of a rural newspaper and town devastated by a tornado. I asked their instructor, Dr. Jacqui Lowman, one of the newest academic partners of our Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, to share the experience, which is now posted as a feature on our www.RuralJournalism.org home page and excerpted as an item in The Rural Blog.

By Dr. Jacquelyn Lowman, University of North Dakota

On the night of August 26, 2007, a killer tornado ripped through the little town of Northwood, N.D. There was great damage and the town was reeling.

Help poured in, but amid the confusion, folks there needed something to cling to, an affirmation of existence, a promise that they would prevail. In short, they needed The Gleaner, the weekly paper. But all the newspaper staff members were personally affected by the tornado and the paper’s advertising base was severely diminished. The Gleaner was in trouble. Newspapers stepped up, taking out ads to keep the income flowing. The publisher of a neighboring weekly and his staff pitched in to help get out the first post-tornado issue.

Northwood is about 40 miles from the University of North Dakota (and about 10 miles from where I live), and my students have adopted The Gleaner. That first week, I went with three of them to get people’s stories of survival and triumph. Since then, my students, by ones and twos, are going to Northwood, getting stories, contributing articles of hope to The Gleaner, making a record for posterity. The students will be continuing this at least through the semester.

This is tough on them. They are seeing and experiencing emotional pain and suffering. There are times when they need some hand-holding and the stories have to be pulled out of them. But they are growing enormously and giving a priceless gift. I am so proud of them and of the wonderful profession of community journalism.
I asked Jacqui to send me some student stories and images for posting on our Web site. Wes Fahrenbruck write about a woman who found refuge from the storm in a bathtub: "We all spend some time in the bathtub, but rarely without a roof over our heads. Mary Weber, an employee at the Northwood Deaconess Health Center and six-year resident of Northwood, has spent time in the tub looking up at the sky." (Read more)

Nick Johnson wrote a more personal account, about helping his girlfriend's grandmother: "She thought of every excuse in the book to stay in her home, telling her daughter Anne, “I just washed these sheets today, and I’m going to sleep right here in my bed.” As her hand came down onto the mattress to reiterate her point, a number of leaves bounced off her freshly washed sheets. At that moment, Grandma Haga started to realize what had actually taken place." (Read more)

Mark Thueson, a former meteorology major, wrote a story describing the path of the storm. "It reads like a thriller to me, despite the fact that I know what happens," his professor wrote. He also put together some images to help people follow along," one of which appears below, with Northwood at the center and the tornado path in red. For his story, click here.

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