With 'Katrina Fatigue' Worn Off, Magazines Chronicle a Rebirth

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By Becky Bohrer
Associated Press
Saturday, April 5, 2008

Editor Eleanor Griffin worried about "Katrina fatigue" among her readers when she devoted much of her magazine's October edition to New Orleans's comeback, more than two years after the devastating hurricane.

Her gut instinct in continuing to tell the story paid off, she said, and it gave Cottage Living its best-received issue last year.

"There's so much interest in human interest right now," Griffin said, adding that she didn't want to write the "We came, we saw, we swung a hammer kind of story" she'd seen others write. "I think people want to see the good guy win."

Since the storm, magazines better known for recipes and dream houses have made room on their glossy pages for stories of resilience -- giving readers who watched the destruction and human suffering that followed Katrina unfold from their living rooms a reminder of the work that remains and the spirit that endures in neighborhoods laid to waste.

The continuing interest reflects extended delays in rebuilding after the storm and long lead times for magazines and other lifestyle media. The Katrina fever extends to the Web ("This Old House" chronicling rebuilding stories) and even reality TV ("Make Me a Supermodel" sashaying through the French Quarter).

Local tourism officials, who take calls from producers looking to help hurricane-affected families and regularly direct travel and fashion journalists around the city, haven't kept track of how many families have been affected by these relief efforts. But they don't see interest waning anytime soon.

In part, that's because New Orleans has finally entered a new phase in its recovery, moving past the prolonged emergency response and the planning phase to the actual bricks-and-mortar rebuilding effort.

"Before, when they came in, it was more 'This is such a mysterious town with such great backdrops,' " said Lea Sinclair, a spokeswoman for the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. Now, she said, "everybody really is on a mission to help."

Travel programs are back, and food writers are again sampling the local fare. Fashion magazines, which, like the film industry, seemed to take a renewed interest in the area before Katrina hit in August 2005, have returned, too: W magazine, for example, used New Orleans as its backdrop for a 60-page Bruce Weber photo spread in its April issue.

"Here is a city of great characters with big personalities," Dennis Freedman, W's creative director, said in a statement. "That's something that seems lost in America right now, when everything feels so homogenized."

For shelter magazines, used to showcasing more aspirational living and architecture, this phase of the recovery seemed a logical fit. In addition to telling very New Orleans-centric stories -- the challenges of rebuilding in a largely wiped-out neighborhood, for example -- there have also been practical tips for homeowners in other parts of the country, such as how to duplicate the look of a renovated room or how to get rid of mold.

"This Old House" has featured New Orleans in its magazine, on its Web site and in a TV series. The magazine last year told the story of Troy Moore and his brothers, whose homes were damaged and who were helping their parents rebuild.

Moore said he didn't mind sharing his story, one similar to so many others in a city where roots run deep, and hoped readers took away one simple message: Don't count New Orleans out.

Some neighborhoods have been aggressive in courting media attention. Broadmoor, for example, is planning to work with HGTV to finish two homes, plant trees and do demolition-type work. HGTV also plans to choose families in the next few weeks for a program that will help families who fell short in federal aid, insurance proceeds or other funds, casting director Blake Lyon said.

"Neighborhoods that are not getting creative and taking matters into their own hands will lag behind," said Hal Roark of the Broadmoor Development Corp.

That could lead to tension between struggling families and their TV- and magazine-blessed neighbors. No one seems to be complaining, though, at least not yet.

"I think people are receptive, rich, middle-income or poor, to any assistance they can get," said Lynn Lee, a resident of New Orleans's Gentilly neighborhood. "If someone is willing to come in and help, I don't think there's a problem with that. There's so much to do."

While many of the stories have been positive or uplifting, some focus on the city as a design lab. Dwell magazine, for example, has explored alternative building and how that can fit into historic neighborhoods.

"It's as if Katrina has made New Orleans an incubator or testing ground for design ideas," said Dwell.com's Mike Cannell, who has blogged in recent weeks about the interest in more sustainable building.

Cottage Living built its 2007 Idea Home in New Orleans and worked with the Preservation Resource Center, a nonprofit group that works to save historic homes and neighborhoods. The project house, which replaced a building "you and I could have blown over collectively," Griffin says, was opened for tours and eventually sold.

Ann Dupuy, an interior designer who worked on the Cottage Living house for months pro bono, said she got a lot of calls after the issue ran, but that didn't translate into a lot of new business. That's not the reason she did it anyway, she said. She wanted to give back.

Griffin has similar ambitions for the magazine, and she said she hopes to continue following the Katrina story.

"The city is too cool to stay on its knees," she said.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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