Texas will need great regional reporting for months and years. Can we muster a cavalry?
The news out of Texas this week shows how journalism stands out in crisis, when reliable information is essential and when people producing the news are living the same story as the people who need it.
We've seen journalism delivering enormous service already, and Texas is going to need it for days, weeks, months and perhaps years to come.
The hometown press — large and small, nonprofit and for-profit — are performing superbly in covering Harvey. And as those following the coverage know, journalists in Houston, in Victoria, in Rockport and in so many other places have faced the same risks and worry about their homes and families as the rest of the region.
Journalists are information’s first responders, camping out in newsrooms as they flood or running towards the storm to ensure they can get accurate information out to the public.
But as the storm passes, as does national attention, we too often forget that local journalists remain on the front lines, reporting on the recovery even as they live through it themselves.
Can news organizations keep solidarity with the people they aim to inform and serve once the floods recede and the national press moves on?
More pressing for those newsrooms and individual journalists: Where do resources come from to provide the service needed?
I have some ideas.
The Harvey coverage this week brings back my experience with The News & Observer's coverage of hurricanes Fran (in 1996) and Floyd (1999) in North Carolina. Both storms came ashore in early September, and this time of year always takes me back to the intensity of coverage that consumes one’s life for weeks if not months.
Fran made landfall at Cape Fear as a Category 3 hurricane and roared northwest and through Raleigh with heavy rain and hurricane-force winds, killing 24 people and causing an estimated $7-billion-plus damage in '96 dollars. As the storm came in, I hunkered down in my darkened house and listened through the night as the trees cracked and fell (one clipped my front porch, but was short of the dwelling), then clambered over downed trees and walked most of the way to work at the newspaper, where I spent most of the following weeks.
Hurricane Floyd was a drenching Harvey precursor, first for the Bahamas and primarily for Eastern North Carolina, causing dozens of fatalities, forcing mass evacuations and pushing rivers and creeks out of their beds. Once the storm passed, the floodwaters rose. And once the floods receded, the mold and rot, scams, bureaucratic failures, environmental catastrophes and wiped-out communities needed attention.
The News & Observer, then part of a strong McClatchy newspaper group in an industry nearing record profits, stuck with the stories needed after both storms. We did watchdog reporting on government and insurance industry response, consumer guidance, personal and community loss. Yet with both storms, the coverage strained capacity and took a toll on staff, personally and professionally.
Those were different times. Today, social media and a vastly expanded digital news universe offer connection and information in crises, and a story like Harvey is a global news event being covered by nearly every news outlet. And at the same time, local and regional newsrooms who so many turn to in these disasters are diminished in size and strength, some drastically.
After the international event passes, the disaster on the ground will linger. Strong local and regional reporting are more necessary than ever to provide context and civic connection once the adrenalin wears off and as Houston, Rockport and so many other towns and cities seek ways to move forward.
Texas has a long tradition of strong public service journalism, as coverage of Harvey shows. As I admire the volume and power of their reporting, multiplatform storytelling, photography, 24-hour updates, commentary and radio programs, I know the people in these newsrooms are tiring.
A flood of unprecedented proportion poses never-seen challenges. How, in 2017, could the advantages of digital technology and a collaborative approach help journalists invent and deliver the coverage Texas needs over the coming months and years?
As other states send National Guard troops, boat rescuers, money and goods to help Harvey's victims. Where is the convoy of journalists to spell the weary ranks of reporters, anchors, photographers, sound engineers, editors, producers and others who've been working around the clock? Could this storm inspire a new kind of collective effort among journalists and community leaders in Texas and beyond, focused on service to residents and civic leaders as they decide how to proceed?
Here are three possibilities for such support:
Collaboration among regional and national news organizations committed to the story. This is happening already: ProPublica, Texas Tribune and Reveal are expanding on an investigative series from before the storm to answer questions about current risks. When KHOU was flooded last week, Tegna station WFAA pitched in to help.
In New Jersey and New York after Hurricane Sandy, news collaborations also sprang up and planted the seeds for long-term partnerships. Texas media face enormous challenges; by banding together on needs they can’t tackle individually, such as data and mapping, they can avoid duplication and extend their work.
Perhaps a pop-up newsroom with staff from several organizations, supplemented by volunteer help from journalists across the country via IRE or other entities, could exist as a cooperative for one to two years. Could a small army of relief journalists be forged from the ranks of people who exited newsrooms early in the past five years because of industry downsizing? How about one-year fellowships for entry-level journalists?
Intensified financial support for journalism as an ongoing public service. From subscriptions and individual donations to corporate sponsorship and larger-scale philanthropy, targeted funding can fuel longer-term, community-focused journalism that otherwise competes for resources in struggling newsrooms.
It’s happened before: After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, several foundations created the Inform and Engage Fund within the New Jersey Recovery Fund, providing $800,000 in grants to 13 organizations for short- and long-term work, as Molly de Aguiar (then with the Geraldine R. Dodge Fund) wrote in 2015.
The Detroit Journalism Cooperative was launched to cover that city’s bankruptcy and expanded from there as an ongoing coverage partnership. Recognizing timely, high-quality journalism as a public good is perhaps easier when its benefits and needs are outlined as starkly as in the past week.
Revitalized community relationships and engagement as a support base. Throughout Harvey news organizations have gathered and published photos, personal stories and expert analysis and acted as a connector from people who need to people who can provide help. There is much more capacity to tap into. Just as they are living the disaster in their own homes and families, local news organizations and journalists are people with a stake in the future built post-Harvey.
If they can extend their active engagement with communities, not just as audiences but as neighbors, they can likely find voices, content and the basis for trust and support in the longer term.
Melanie Sill oversaw coverage of many hurricanes at The News & Observer, where she reported and held a series of editing roles including executive editor. Former editor in chief of the Sacramento Bee and VP for content at KPCC, Los Angeles’ largest NPR affiliate, she is currently working on local news sustainability as an independent editor and senior consultant for the Democracy Fund.