“I’ve been here for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Keith Campbell, managing editor of the Dallas Morning News, which several years ago covered a regional cluster of tornadoes that killed 11 people in one night.
The ongoing stress of reporting during a pandemic has been compounded by the Lone Star State’s new crisis, said Texas Tribune editorial director Stacy-Marie Ishmael. “It’s really mentally very challenging. It’s quite something talking to folks who say, ‘hold on, I think my pipes are bursting, but I’ll file [a story] as soon as I can.'"
“Journalists aren’t comfortable being the story,” she said, “but the pandemic turned all of us into the story because, by definition, every single person has been affected in some way — although some more than others.”
Natural disasters can be moments for local journalism heroics. When Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans, Times-Picayune reporters and photographers remained in the flooded city to report from the epicenter of suffering, earning the paper two Pulitzer Prizes. Houston Chronicle journalists did the same when Hurricane Harvey flooded their city in 2017. The paper was a Pulitzer finalist that year.
But while Texas news outlets have plenty of experience covering major weather events and natural disasters, an event of this magnitude — freezing weather compounded by the failure of the state’s electrical grid and catastrophic disruptions in utility services — is unprecedented in the state.
Power outages have knocked TV stations off the air. Smaller papers such as the Amarillo Globe-News and Midland Reporter-Telegram were forced to halt deliveries, but kept their websites going. “I can see my breath inside my house,” tweeted Abilene Reporter-News sports reporter Stephen Garcia, who chronicled days without power and posted photos of the murky water from his faucet in between links to his stories.
The Houston Chronicle, which managed to keep its printing press rolling during Hurricane Harvey, notified subscribers this week not every edition may get printed. The newspaper has nevertheless published explainers on how to deal with burst pipes and find warming centers. It’s reported on more than two dozen deaths in the Houston area, including a shirtless, shoeless man found early Thursday morning in a parking lot. Its journalists have been working around-the-clock, meeting up in homes that miraculously still have power to file their reports.
“For the first time, all 254 counties were under a winter storm warning simultaneously,” said Chronicle reporter Zach Despart. “This has affected way more people on a personal level than Hurricane Harvey.”
Despart has had no potable water all week, and only intermittent electricity. (Power had largely been restored to the state by Friday, though millions still lacked full water access.) He’s spent much of the week crowded into a single heated room with his girlfriend and their dog, leaving the rest of the house dark and freezing so as not to strain the power grid. And he said he considers himself lucky; one of his co-workers had a major gas leak and evacuated her home.
Every day, Despart has been fielding questions from readers in worse situations than his. “We’re doing what we have to do to get this paper out,” he said. “We know there’s a dearth of information, so anything we can get out to people, we’re going to do that.”
The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news outlet based in Austin, has become a lifeline for people looking to find or give help. The outlet, which shares its work free with other news organizations, launched an emergency text message service after many Austin residents failed to receive official notices about unsafe tap water.
Tribune reporters are also digging into the causes of the crisis. The outlet published a widely shared article debunking a conservative talking point that blamed frozen wind turbines for the power outage, and it reported that Texas’s independent power grid came close to total collapse this week, which could have left residents powerless for months.
“With local journalism in general, people are seeing the value of having people who are experiencing the thing writing about the thing,” said the Tribune’s chief product officer, Millie Tran, who developed the text-message service within 24 hours.
Elsewhere in the country, people unable to reach relatives inside of Texas have come to rely on the Tribune’s reporting. A New York Times editor with parents stranded in Houston called it “an essential source of news and sanity” and urged donations to the nonprofit. A Tribune spokeswoman said membership revenue was up nearly 50 percent in February compared with a year ago, with the money helping cover the cost of hotels, food and potable water for employees.
Campbell said the Dallas Morning News’s online readership has spiked dramatically, in a week when nearly every story in the newspaper was related to the storm, and a photo taken by a copy editor ran on the front page.
“I’m just really proud of the resilience and sense of purpose that people displayed,” he said. “The fact that so many journalists have experienced what other people have felt, the silver lining in that is this raises your empathy for what people are going through and you have a greater understanding. It’s not abstract.”