From Biloxi and New Orleans: The Stories Behind the Pulitzers
As part of my assignment for the 2006-2007 edition of "Best Newspaper Writing," I spoke by telephone with Jim Amoss, editor of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, and Stan Tiner, executive editor of the Sun Herald in Biloxi.
The 2006-2007 edition of "Best Newspaper Writing" presents interviews with editors Stan Tiner and Jim Amoss, excerpted here, as well as with Pulitzer winners Jim Sheeler, Nicholas D. Kristof and Todd Heisler. The book will go on sale Sept. 15, and can be pre-ordered here. You can purchase the 2005 and previous editions here.Neither man, as we spoke that day in March, was aware that, within a month, journalism's highest honor would be bestowed upon his newsroom.
But then, these are editors who have learned, in ways most of us cannot imagine, about dealing with the unexpected.
Oh, they knew this hurricane was going to be a big one. And they had plans for dealing with it. In Biloxi, a team of staffers was dispatched to a sister Knight Ridder paper in Columbus, Ga., with what Tiner recalled were clear instructions: "If you don't hear from us again, put out a newspaper."
But Katrina exceeded their worst fears.
"We knew this was going to be a killer storm," Tiner said, "and we had told everyone during a staff meeting on Saturday to take care of themselves and their families first, and return as quickly as possible.
"But because everyone was living by the Camille standard -- they knew how far in Camille had come and where those water lines were -- and they said, 'If it stood then, then I'm immune from death.' They had a sense of invulnerability. So people stayed in the danger zone. We had no way of knowing how many of our staff we might have seen for the last time at our staff meeting on Saturday."
In New Orleans, Amoss and the Times-Picayune staff also had a plan that, for a while, made sense.
"You have to remember that the discovery of what had happened came in several waves," Amoss said. "First there was the hurricane wind storm -- and it was ferocious. It blew in six or seven windows in our building, which is quite a fortress -- a big, hulking, thick-walled building that exudes strong shelter…
"We had placed computers powered by generators near the core of the building, and we planned to produce newspapers with those generators after we lost power, which we knew would happen. We also planned to use those computers to put our work on the Internet or to transmit our work to remote presses if need be.
"This plan still all made sense when the storm arrived late Sunday night into Monday morning. And so in late morning, or early afternoon, we gradually emerged from the building. Winds were still strong, but you could walk outside without facing too much danger. Some of our bravest journalists ventured out, some in boats and some in trucks, and what they immediately observed was that it had been a ferocious wind storm that had caused great damage. But this is what we had planned for -- to stay in the building and dispatch our staff from there."
The first signs that things were much worse came that afternoon, Amoss recalled:
"We began to dispatch staff members to parts of the city that we knew others wouldn't go to because they wouldn’t know where to go -- we knew the national media would focus on downtown and the French Quarter, and that's what they did. And they were reporting that New Orleans had dodged another bullet.
"In other parts of the city, our people -- especially our photographers, were finding another story. Along the eastern edge of the city -- in the Lower Ninth Ward, in St. Bernard Parish -- the Industrial Canal levee had collapsed. They found horrific sights: violent water, buildings destroyed and many people trapped on rooftops. People in private boats already were trying to rescue stranded residents. The photographers alternated from shooting photos to joining in the rescue.
"So in mid-afternoon, the photographers came back to the office and reported that the eastern edge of the city was disastrously flooded, and that there would likely be a great loss of life."
To the east, along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Tiner and his staff were also beginning to realize the extent of the devastation.
"I had driven the 10 miles from my house to the office," Tiner said, "weaving around all kinds of debris in the road, seeing the looters. I ran into a Gulfport policeman who told me, 'The city's gone.' He said he hadn't seen it himself, but that's what someone had told him on the radio. He told me that two restaurants on the same street as the newspaper had been destroyed. When I asked him about the newspaper building, he said he didn't know. So it wasn't until I came around the corner and saw the building standing that I knew whether it had been destroyed or not.
"I drove down to the beach -- or as close as I could because of the devastation. People were wandering around, looking like they had been in a nuclear blast. Their eyes had that blank stare like soldiers after a battle. They were asking for food and water because their houses had been destroyed.
"When I got to Highway 90, it literally had been turned upside down -- the water had gotten under the roadway and played around with it for a while and then literally flipped it over."
That afternoon, the mayor came to the Sun Herald newsroom with news that 50 were dead.
"He looked really impacted, eyes big," Tiner said. "His city had just been wiped off the face of the earth. It was very emotional. He told us he had stayed at City Hall and watched as the water rushed through like a river.
"'This is our tsunami,' he said. And that became our headline the next day and one used by newspapers around the world."
Back in New Orleans, as Amoss gathered the staff that evening for a news meeting, the decision had been made to abandon plans to publish an edition on newsprint, and instead to publish a .pdf version of the paper.
"When we started the meeting, we were deciding how to best report the apparent duality of the situation: that the city had been saved, but that the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish had been devastated. But that soon changed.
"That afternoon at about 2 p.m., James O'Byrne, the features editor, and Doug MacCash, the arts critic, had taken bicycles and rode them along the railroad tracks to Canal Boulevard, which runs from Lake Pontchartrain to downtown New Orleans. What they found was a rushing torrent -- waves cascading toward downtown -- and they realized that something disastrous had happened.
"Watching this, it dawned on James that his home had been destroyed, too. He put down his notebook and let that thought sink in. Then, after a few moments, he picked it up and started scribbling again.
"He then pulled out a camera and immediately saw the flashing light that meant his battery was low. So he turned to the people with them on the bridge and asked, 'Does anyone have a AA battery?' Suddenly a man jumped off the bridge into the water, swam 50 feet to his house (which is under, surrounded by seven feet of water), goes inside (closing the door behind him) and comes out holding a Ziploc bag filled with batteries in his teeth.
"For six hours, James and Doug rode along the railroad tracks, taking notes and shooting photographs, reporting on the breach of the 17th Street Canal. What they saw was a truly disastrous urban inundation -- it was a real triumph of first-hand reporting.
"So we were in the midst of our news meeting that evening when James and Doug burst in and told us what they had -- the whole city was being inundated by the breach. We radically rethought what we would say in the next day's paper, and went with the headline, Catastrophic."
Looking back, more than six months later, both editors recalled being aware of the awesome responsibility their staffs bore to serve their communities during a time of unprecedented crisis.
"On Monday morning (the day Katrina made landfall)," Amoss said, "I told the staff that this was the biggest story of our lives, and that it was absolutely vital that we tell it as only we can tell it.
"We had a tremendous responsibility -- this was a newspaper story par excellence. Telling it requires resources that only the newspaper can muster. It flows from the accumulated, layered knowledge of the complex community that only the newspaper staff possesses over time."
"In the newsroom, we never lost the professional air," Tiner said. "Everyone did what they had spent a life preparing to do. Everybody knew it was the biggest story of our lives. Nobody ever came out and said that, but we all knew it that it was.
"This brought home very well the value of a local newspaper. We really had the home field advantage. We knew where things were, who to talk to, where shelters would be located. We were serving this community at a level that nobody else could…
"… We gave useful information to people who were on the ground, trying to survive a disaster. We covered the big story well, too. But no one else had the information necessary for helping people stay alive one more day. We delivered the paper free to people for six months. I’ll never forget the reporters and photographers out delivering papers. They were connecting with real people, making the kind of difference people say they get into the business for – to help others. But most of us don’t get to really do that."
Both editors said the coverage gave them insights into the people on their staffs -- and into themselves.
"I learned during all this how good my staff was," Tiner said. "We're a small paper in a place that people don't pay much attention to. But I watched how the staff rose to the challenge, willing to work around the clock. And their journalism was impressive.
"I had the easiest job in the place -- I just stood back and cheered them on… It reminded me how the editor's most important job is to hire good people. Hire them and turn them loose. And they'll come through for you.
"I think a kindler, gentler Stan came out, because I was more understanding of human needs of the staff than I had been before. I can be pretty demanding. But I found out it was necessary to be extremely mindful of a person's needs. Even if they played a critical role at the paper, there were times when they needed some down time.
"I learned to pace myself. You can't do everything right now. I came to believe in journalism triage. We'd examine all the stories around us on a given day -- and there were hundreds every day -- and say, if the staff can do 25 or 30 stories today, which ones are critical to keeping our community alive and going for one more day? What are we capable of pulling out, and how important was that coverage to the community?
"And those were the stories we did."
Amoss also recalled the heroic efforts of his staff, in particular, "their emotional resilience and stamina at a time when they had lost everything.
"Scenes like the one with James O'Byrne on the bridge, realizing he had lost his home, were replicated over and over. People who had no idea what had befallen their possessions or, in some cases, their families, were there putting out the newspaper. In a way, I think that helped to sustain them over time."
And what surprised him about Jim Amoss?
"My ability to crowd out the darkest thoughts of what would happen to the newspaper, to my family, to my city. Plunging into newspapering was a form of therapy. It was quite a blessing. I could see the difference in family members who didn't have that to help them through it all.
"I also was surprised at how grief would come to me unexpectedly; how riding in the car and hearing a radio report could bring me to tears."