A year later, moving from 'what went wrong' to how to create a better Puerto Rico

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'We really dug deep in our souls'

Competitors became collaborators. Truck drivers and salespeople with smartphones became journalists. Nearly a year after Hurricane Maria, the deadliest natural disaster on U.S. soil in 111 years, Puerto Rico's biggest newspaper has staved off financial ruin, decentralized its offices and found itself a strident advocate for the island's future.

For more than three months after Maria struck last Sept. 20, the normally subscription-based El Nuevo Día circulated for free, largely without paid advertising, said Luis Alberto Ferré Rangel, a member of the third generation of a family that has run the newspaper since 1945. The public service came as Maria and its aftermath killed at least 2,975 people and caused $90 billion of damage.

"As a media company, we really dug deep in our souls and said this is the moment for this company to provide," Ferré Rangel, chief editorial adviser and social innovation officer of the paper's parent company, said in an interview Thursday.

The one-two economic punch forced the paper to make layoffs. Retail advertising has remained weak, apart from pent-up demand in construction-related sectors, said Ferré Rangel, the paper's former editor in chief. TV outlets also experienced an ad downturn, though not as severe, and radio station ads bounced back the quickest, he said. No legacy outlets have closed, and prospects for 2019 appear brighter, he said.

After Maria hit, El Nuevo Día and its sister paper, Primera Hora, joined other media outlets for joint questioning of island officials, broadcast on radio and TV. They grilled the officials on the scope of the disaster, the lackluster and scandalous federal relief effort and the island's vulnerability in the future.

Luis Alberto Ferré Rangel
Luis Alberto Ferré Rangel

“It really was a show of force,” said Ferré Rangel, adding that the collaboration with onetime rivals is now a part of a playbook if another major storm strikes.

Another lesson: Don't bottle up most of your staff in one place that may be hard to get to with closed or clogged roads. The newspaper has converted 10 distribution centers islandwide into regional editorial "hubs," with power generators, a ready supply of gas, food and water. If conventional phone connections go down, each hub has satellite communications for video transmission — a shortcoming after Maria. Also, all employees, editorial or otherwise, now are expected to file notes or photos if they encounter news.

Underpinning this preparation was a realization: "There is not a hurricane season anymore. Climate change is here, and we have to prepare for climate events all year long.” (Related: 'We were ready but not expecting what's going on')

The biggest lesson may have been one of outlook. For the first six months, "we were very forceful in our editorials, our columns, our reporting, in questioning the numbers — and the conditions highlighting why there were so many deaths,” Ferré Rangel said. The Orlando bureau, opened a month before Maria, reported on how Florida's million-strong Puerto Rican community opened its doors to thousands of people escaping the horrid conditions and prolonged outages after Maria.

But the paper had to pivot. The staff in Puerto Rico had gone through Maria's trauma and many kept pressing on "what went wrong," he said. After six months, the newspaper also had to focus — and, uncharacteristically, lead — in positively modeling how to move forward, by portraying sustainable practices and new approaches in education, tech, healthcare, energy, agriculture and as a society. It had to offer its audience a vision for the future.

"By highlighting social entrepreneurs and what they’re doing on a micro level," Ferré Rangel said, giving one example, "we’re putting a light on the behaviors and practices that create a new Puerto Rico.”

Quick hits

NEWSWORTHY: The former public editor of The New York Times doesn’t fault the paper for publishing the “Anonymous” op-ed as much the writer for insisting on anonymity. “For me,” writes Margaret Sullivan, now media columnist at The Washington Post, “it comes down to newsworthiness — and that the piece has, in spades.” ... Marjorie Pritchard, The Boston Globe op-ed editor who organized editorial editors nationwide to write in defense of a free press, says she would have run the "anonymous" op-ed, too, "after proper and extensive vetting."

HALTED: NewsDeeply, a 6-year-old venture that reports on some of the world’s most intractable issues, is closing three of its platforms, founder Lara Setrakian announced. Funding ran out for its verticals on oceans, malnutrition and peace-building, she said, “but we will be ready to relaunch them or shape them into a new form when circumstances allow.” (h/t Raju Narisetti)

GETTING MIGHTY CROWDED: The business-of-entertainment site The Wrap is the latest media outlet entering the subscription business. While buying the subscription site VideoInk, eventually to become Wrap Pro, journalist Sharon Waxman says she’ll keep the free site, but needs to diversify revenue from digital advertising. Recode’s Peter Kafka wonders if it will be harder to sell subscriptions if everyone’s suddenly in the subscription business? Waxman’s reply: It’s on us to make our content worthwhile and valuable enough to pay.

THE LAST SHOE TO DROP: Twitter finally joined other social media companies by "permanently suspending" Alex Jones and his conspiracy website, Infowars.

DELETING FACEBOOK: More than a quarter of U.S. Facebook users polled said they deleted the app from their phone in the past year. That’s among findings in a Pew Reseach poll, which also showed 42 percent of those surveyed said they had taken a break from the social platform. By Andrew Perrin. Here’s my look from yesterday on efforts to rein in digital use to broaden and deepen thinking.

NEW REVENUE STREAM: For a Philadelphia-based Chinese paper, the answer was WeChat. By Anh Nguyen of Solution Set.

CHAPTER TWO: After Tronc did not agree voluntarily to a union at two Virginia properties, the newsrooms of The Virginian Pilot and The Daily Press voted overwhelming to authorize a federally overseen union vote. “We hope Tronc will see a union as a good thing rather than a bad thing, encouraging journalists to stay at our papers and do great journalism,” Daily Press reporter Pete Dujardin said. The effort is backed by The News Guild, a branch of the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America. (h/t Kristen Hare)

SEARCHING FOR UNITY: The political polarization of trust for news media outlets extends to search engines, an Axios/Survey Monkey polls finds. Two-thirds of respondents who identify as Republican distrust search engines, considering the results biased to favor liberals, an idea spread by President Trump and conservative sites. Roughly the same margin of Democrats says search engines are unbiased.

FIRST PERSON: It's a summer evening, four years ago. She remembers the red light, the breeze, the Usher song "Yeah" on the radio. A silver Tacoma rounding the corner, a pop, fire in her arm. The bullet is still there, deep in Elaina Plott’s muscles. Now she covers Congress, and the gun debate, for The Atlantic.

ACCOUNTABILITY: Need help with an accountability story emanating from a state capital? ProPublica is funding seven reporter positions in state capitals nationwide, partnering with local news outlets, for statewide investigative projects. Applications due September 14. Find out more here, and watch editors describe projects here.

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