Gulf Coast Journalists Hold Heads Above Water

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By Robert MacMillan Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 31, 2005; 10:27 AM

When I was a video store clerk in college, nothing fired me up more than the prospect of a snow day. Foul weather promised a fair amount of extra sleep. Now that I'm a reporter, an ominous forecast presents new opportunities for thinking creatively: how to get to work, how to contact sources, how to file.

Many operations shut down when the weather turns rough, giving employees a welcome day off. That's not how it works in the news business. The weather is the news, so it often forces reporters to go to uncomfortable places to write, and write well. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, local journalists are battling not just hostile conditions, but the loss of their newsrooms and in some cases their presses.

Well, thank goodness for the Internet.

Now that most of New Orleans is under water and communications systems across the Gulf Coast sustained a fatal blow, local newspapers are using their Web sites to get the news out. In a profession that survives on its credibility and consistency, this is proving vital in the wake of the hurricane.

Take the Times-Picayune . The premier paper for New Orleans, its news staff had to jump ship when conditions in the city worsened to intolerable. The New York Times reported that the staff ended up in Houma in bayou country as well as Baton Rouge. Without a press, the paper's Tuesday and Wednesday editions were published online.

"Despite the scramble to find a new base of operations, The Times-Picayune was able to add a few staff-written stories to its Web site during the day as well as updates from The Associated Press. The Times-Picayune is part of the Newhouse chain of newspapers, owned by Advance Publications . The paper's Web site ... is run from computers in a data center in New Jersey, said [Jeff Jarvis], the former president of, which oversees the Web sites of the Newhouse papers," the Times reported. "Steven Newhouse, the chairman of, said he had mostly been watching The Times-Picayune's struggle to keep reporting the news from a distance since he lost e-mail and phone contact with the editors. 'So we've been out of touch, but they've had this amazing publishing thing on the Web and the Web log and they've done it under these terrible conditions,' Mr. Newhouse said."

The reporting so far has been formidable, especially with the site's compulsively readable lead story by Dan Shea, one of the paper's managing editors. The site also features missing person forums, a lost-and-found section, wire stories , weather reports and blog entries. In short, it's everything a well-run newspaper can do given free rein on the Internet.

Here's more from the Times: "The Internet, as a decentralized communications network, can be more resilient than traditional media when natural disasters occur. 'Owning broadcast towers and printing presses were useless,' said ... Jarvis, a consultant to online media companies. 'The Web proved to be a better media in a case like this.'"

I tried calling and e-mailing a couple other local news sources in the area to find out whether they published newspapers today, but couldn't get in touch with anyone. Nevertheless, they appear to confirm what Jarvis said.

The Sun Herald in hard-hit Biloxi, Miss., is running updated news as of just after 7 a.m. Eastern Time. I also saw online-only postings from the Courier out of Houma as well as the Daily Comet in Thibodaux, La. The Mississippi Press, serving the Pascagoula area, has a full PDF version of Tuesday's paper available at , but as of 9 a.m. ET there was no Wednesday edition.

All things considered, it's amazing that there is this much reporting and publishing activity going on at all. It's even more amazing when you consider that for all the talk about being excited by new opportunities on the Web, newspaper companies' relationships with the Internet are motivated mostly by fear and loathing. The Internet robs them of their revenue on just about every front, even as readers clamor for more and better news. ("Oh, and make it free while you're at it.")

Now that the traditional means of delivery -- newsprint -- is temporarily unavailable, these sites are using the tools at the Internet offers, and are doing it well under harsh conditions. Let's hope that this disaster proves profitable for newsrooms everywhere. If it does, it will benefit not just the readers but those of us who spend our lives serving them.

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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