How the Houston Chronicle is covering the city's historic disaster

Albert Gonzalez tugged a pallet piled with newspapers through a maze of donated clothes, pillows and blankets on Tuesday. They formed tumbled islands at the George R. Brown Convention Center, where at least 10,000 came after Houston flooded.

On Tuesday, the Houston Chronicle delivered more than 4,000 free copies of the newspaper to evacuees there. 

When they saw the newspapers, a group standing nearby cheered a bit and thanked them.

"We were their first big news," said Doug Windsor. He works in the Chronicle's sales department and went along with Gonzalez, an independent distributor, for deliveries.

"We were very popular when we first walked in."

The Chronicle took nearly 12,000 newspapers to shelters in the area. It also delivered free newspapers to hotels, grocery stores, a hospital, gas stations — anywhere people can get them. 

On Wednesday, they did it again.

As thousands of people leave their homes and neighborhoods to flee massive flooding in Houston, journalists at the Houston Chronicle are spread out across the sprawling metro covering the story.

"Nobody covers hurricanes at this paper full-time, and now everyone is covering hurricanes at this paper full-time," said Managing Editor Vernon Loeb. 

All hands on deck is a cliche, he added.

"This is all hands on deck."

Metro Editor Dianna Hunt works from the Chronicle newsroom. (Photo by Scott Kingsley/Houston Chronicle)
Metro Editor Dianna Hunt works from the Chronicle newsroom. (Photo by Scott Kingsley/Houston Chronicle)

At 6:41 a.m. on Sunday, Loeb sent an email to staff. The subject line: Full staff activation. Here's part of it:

All:

      We are heading into a severe flooding emergency and everyone on the Chronicle editorial staff is activated. Please get in touch with, and work through, your regular supervisor. Assess the roads in your community, begin reporting there and await further instructions. 

The Houston Chronicle, which has about 200 journalists in its newsroom, has been fortunate to have a staff large enough to spread out and cover what's really happening in Houston, said Metro Editor Dianna Hunt.

Some, like reporter Cindy George, are stuck in their homes and reporting from there. Some are embedded in communities claimed by flooding.

Loeb jogged four and a half miles from his apartment into the newsroom. Real estate reporter Nancy Sarnoff headed to a downtown hotel with her family on Saturday and was among the first in the newsroom to get into the convention center across the street when it opened Sunday. Along with the stories they're reporting, they all have stories of their own.

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On Sunday at 10:24 p.m., investigative reporter Susan Carroll wrote a note on Facebook that captured what went into covering the floods. 

Vernon Loeb ran a couple miles from his house to the newsroom this morning during the flood because the roads were impassable. He honestly didn't seem to think twice about it. Lindsay Ellis walked a few miles in the storm, too. Al Lewis climbed over a flooded freeway ramp and waded through waist-high water while doing Facebook Live. Lomi Laura was stranded in her car at one point but still filed great copy. StJohn Barned-Smith's car drowned, but luckily he's OK and kept working. Emily Foxhall spent the night in a shelter and her day on a boat. Mike Morris waded through flooded houses in his neighborhood while Matt Dempsey rode his bike through Pearland snapping photos. Shelby Webb spent all of last night in the newsroom. I don't think she slept at all. John D. Harden has been at the emergency command center literary for days. Keri Blakinger and Jacob Carpenter filed dispatches from down south and along the banks of swelling rivers. Rebecca Elliott, Greg Murago and Nancy Sarnoff talked to some of the people hit the hardest and left homeless, including a barefoot woman with a baby and no formula. Dug Begley filed a couple thousand words, raided the cafeteria and drove us safely to a hotel by the newsroom. Gabrielle Banks called a man back to double check the spelling of his dog's name (thanks again!). And Mark Collette finally made it home to Meyerland on a jet ski, wearing another man's shorts. We left Lydia DePillis, Dianna Hunt and Mike Tolson and many more in the newsroom tonight — along with Vernon, of course. Thanks, guys.

They know what they're supposed to do, Hunt said, and editors have gotten better at coordinating. There's someone updating a continuous story online. And the news keeps coming.

They were ready for his, Loeb said. But they have to think about the bigger picture, too, Hunt said.

"I don't think we even know yet how bad it's going to be," she said.

On Tuesday, the Chronicle's publisher, Hearst, announced a $1 million donation to the Greater Houston Red Cross, with another $1 million available to match employee donations.

The Houston Chronicle has two sites, one free and one with a metered paywall. They took the paywall down before Harvey hit. Chron.com, the always-free site, averages about 5.5 million pageviews a day.

On Sunday, it had 21 million.

Sarnoff's husband works downtown, and on Saturday, his company moved their employees into a downtown hotel. When she saw the email asking if anyone could get downtown safely to the convention center as it opened as a shelter, Sarnoff volunteered.

She's spent every day at the center since, covering press conferences, getting updated numbers of evacuees, covering volunteer efforts, and telling the stories of the people there. 

She hasn't been back in the newsroom yet, but she's seeing the email chains and the coverage coming from them.

"They see a story, they’re on it, they write it. It’s been really impressive," Sarnoff said. "I wouldn’t really expect anything less, I guess. People do this job for this reason."

George, a health and general assignment reporter, is stuck at home. So she's watching the coverage and looking for gaps. And she knows what to look for.

George covered Hurricane Katrina from Mississippi for Raleigh, North Carolina's News and Observer. It's given her some perspective. There's still a lot of electricity in Houston, still a lot of mobility. 

"There was a lot of nothingness in Mississippi."

From that coverage, she's learned to be prepared. She's ready to stay in her home for weeks if she has to. She knows the lights may go out. She might have to charge things using her car. She'll leave if she has to. And, she said, she'll leave everything behind. 

About a third of the Chronicle's staff is young and new, George said. She appreciates their energy (even though she knows they're exhausted) just like the veterans did with her years ago.

Three things are helping the Chronicle cover this story now, she thought: Experience, energy and digital skills.

You need people with the institutional knowledge, the people who've covered disasters. You need people who can streamline workflows and stop duplication. And you need people who can bounce back after three hours of sleep, she said.

"I am really impressed by the number of people who are new to Houston and have figured out how to tell our story."

By Monday, the days were flowing together for Loeb, the managing editor. Like other journalists covering what's happened in Texas, he had to think for a minute about what happened when.

He knows, from covering 9/11 from the Pentagon and then deploying to Afghanistan, that these kinds of stories can wear you down. 

He gets notes asking if he's OK. 

"It's like, 'this is why we're journalists,'" he said. He hates seeing what's happened to Houston. "When it happens, this is why we're here. This is the antidote to people saying reporters are evil and hate America. No, reporters aren't evil and they don't hate America. They feel an incredibly strong sense of obligation and responsibility and a calling to go out there and cover stories like this."

Sometimes it's hard to rally the troops, he said. But not this time. Everyone is working to cover the story.

The challenge now for Chronicle staff is to keep at it. 

"You just have to stay focused on the bigger picture. What does this mean today? What's it going to mean tomorrow? What are the likelihoods of what's ahead?" Hunt said. "And then just roll with it as it comes."

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