How the Times-Picayune and Nola.com covered Hurricane Isaac
On Wednesday afternoon, as Isaac continued its slow-motion journey over Louisiana, the Times-Picayune dispatched a caravan of trucks from its powerless Howard Avenue facility in New Orleans to Mobile, Ala., where its corporate sibling the Mobile Press-Register printed the next day's paper. The trucks returned home around 3 a.m. Thursday after a four-hour drive and delivered the papers to substations. The Times-Picayune's usual backup press is in Houma, La., about an hour southwest of town, but Isaac was having a romp there, too.
Some of the papers got delivered late, publisher Ricky Mathews said in a phone call Thursday afternoon, and the paper didn't transmit the image of its front page to the Newseum until later that day. That led to speculation that the Times-Picayune didn't get printed at all, a misimpression that presumably stemmed from the paper's announced shift to a three-day-per-week print schedule.
But that change won't occur until October, and even afterward, Mathews said, "If you have a situation where the power is out, I can’t imagine we wouldn’t publish a print newspaper under those circumstances." New Orleanians will need to get information any way they can, so the Times-Picayune will retain the flexibility to publish print editions on any day it's necessary, Mathews said.
James O'Byrne is editor of Nola.com, which still has a separate staff from the Times-Picayune's but will combine with its staff in October.
Reached by phone, he said the site had about four times its usual volume during Isaac, 614,000 unique visitors on Wednesday alone. Normally Nola.com gets about 20 percent of its traffic from mobile users, O'Byrne said, but he expected that percentage would be higher during this storm.
"People have gotten pretty adept in New Orleans to use their car chargers to recharge their cellphones," O'Byrne said. Nola.com's peak traffic on Tuesday came between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., he said, when people were likely home. From the volume of user-generated content "you get the sense they're using their phones to both gather their information" and to share it.
Isaac has been the first storm in which readers' use of social media has been a big part of the news organization's coverage, O'Byrne said.
"We promulgated a bunch of hashtags and suggested people tweet info around those hashtags," he said. The site vacuums up tweets with tags like #nolaice, #nolafood and #nolagas. "In the social media sphere, you don’t own anything," O'Byrne said. "All you can do is organize around certain topics." Twitter use wasn't nearly as widespread among readers during Hurricane Gustav in 2008, he said.
Increased engagement and Wednesday's impromptu truck ballet were late additions to a fairly well-established routine for covering extreme weather events.
O'Byrne, who started at the Times-Picayune in 1981 and became editor of Nola.com in 2009, said the news staffs cover big storms in four phases: Preparations for a storm's arrival, dispatches from reporters embedded in emergency operations centers (EOCs) during the storm ("you’re not out reporting unless you have a deathwish" he said), an immediate post-storm damage assessment and finally a big picture, what-have-we-learned analysis.
Isaac was a "weird storm," O'Byrne said. It moved so slowly that reporters ventured out from the EOCs "because it had been going on for two days."
"We tend to go out before it’s really safe to go out, but after it’s really deadly to go out," he said. The news staffs don't deploy all their reporters at once, he said, so some will always be fresh and ready to go.
"We’re pretty well practiced at it," O'Byrne said. "We don’t find it as fun as we used to. Katrina certainly took the fun out of covering hurricanes for us."
Some reporters were calling and dictating their stories, Mathews said. Others, O'Byrne said, were sending photos and updates from their phones.
Thursday, about 20 staffers were working out of the paper's photo studio in the Howard Avenue facility, in what Mathews described as a 16-foot square "bunker" that holds about 20 people and is powered by a generator.
There's a drill for newsroom-bound employees pre-storm, O'Byrne said. "You bring your cooler, your extra clothing, you go down to the composing room and use the Air Compressor to fill up your air mattress and you kind of stake your claim" to a good sleeping spot. Those are the ones away from the windows.
So what happens during the next hurricane season? Mathews said "We haven’t nailed that down" and said "plans will always be developed based on the current situation."
Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss did not reply to my requests for comment on this topic, but he's previously written to staffers that "our reporting arm will be at least comparable" to its current size after the change in October.
When I interviewed Advance Internet chair Steve Newhouse earlier this month he said overall staff at the Times-Picayune would be reduced about 20 percent and the new organization would have "a very significant content team” of about 150 journalists.
Nola.com had posted 550 items on its hurricane page when I spoke with O'Byrne Thursday evening. "After the storm is when print becomes really important," he said. "In the leadup of the storm and the actual intense period it’s vitally important that you be present in the digital space, and I think 550 posts speaks to that ethic."
Wednesday was the seventh anniversary of Katrina, a date O'Byrne marked by staying up all night trying to keep his furniture dry as water entered his apartment. He lost his house during Katrina. When I asked him what lessons they'd take away from Isaac, he said it was a little early to tell, but "I would say that we were reminded not to underestimate small storms."