Covering Katrina: About As Bad As Can Be

September 1, 2005
Category: Uncategorized

By Bill Mitchell
Editor of Poynter Online

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Peter Kovacs, a managing editor of The Times-Picayune, doesn’t know if his home survived Hurricane Katrina but fears it did not.

He doesn’t know when he and his colleagues will be able to return to their newsroom in New Orleans, but figures it won’t be soon.

He’s also not sure what time the PDF version of Friday’s paper will be posted to the Internet, but guesses it might be “some time between the time I fall asleep and the time I wake up.”

So, all things considered, how’s it going?

“About as bad as could be,” Kovacs said by phone from Baton Rouge Thursday evening, noting that the paper’s circumstances, like the story itself, seem to be getting worse day by day.

“Each day the theme of the news coverage is how each day another thing seems to go wrong. Today it was lawlessness. Before, it was flood waters … Seems to change each day.”

In fact, Kovacs sounded better than you might think, buoyed by what he described as an energized staff and an appreciative readership.

“People have a good idea of what they need to be doing, what they want to be doing, and they’re getting a lot of positive response from readers,” he said.

“We’re in a position to provide people with information that they can get nowhere else. We have a bigger staff than anybody else, and we know the city really well… It has not been difficult to get people to rise to the task.”

Kovacs recalled that, as Katrina approached, Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss “correctly said that this would be the biggest story we are ever going to cover -– and we cover a town with a lot of big stories.”

As much as that has focused the staff’s efforts, Kovacs said that, every once in a while, “your mind wanders into just how you’re going to put your life back together.”

He estimates that many, perhaps most of the staff have lost their homes –- but very few know for sure one way or another.

“People will want to take time off to arrange their lives – when they know what arranging they need to do,” he said, “but I’m not sure people have confronted that yet.”

Kovacs, who is 49 but says he’s been “feeling a lot older” in recent days, said he expects that the authorities may permit residents to visit Jefferson Parish, where his home is located, by early next week.

He said about half of the paper’s 270-member newsroom staff is working in Baton Rouge, about 80 miles from New Orleans by interstate. But the interstate is flooded. A convoy of Times-Picayune staff members took about 10 hours to make the trip Tuesday.

Some of the staff is working out of a temporary newsroom at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, and some are working at a production facility in the suburbs. The paper’s publisher, Ashton Phelps Jr., said in a memo that the paper hopes to print about 50,000 copies of the Friday paper at The Houma Courier.

Kovacs said the paper had “stumbled onto a magic formula” that involves delivering some of the news by blog, some by PDF and some, beginning Friday, once again in print. 

Kovacs said editors are deciding what stories should go into the smaller-than-usual print edition — and which should simply be posted to the paper’s blog — “in the usual, random, haphazard ways things get done in journalism.”

He added: “It’s our aim to have the paper be as comprehensive as possible but it’s not possible to fit everything in it. Sometimes that can get you a better paper.”

Kovacs said he had no idea how the paper would distribute the copies, but suggested they’d figure out one way or another –- much as they’re figuring out most things this week.

And they’re doing so mostly without benefit of many tools of the trade. Kovacs said an order for 25 computers was commandeered by the governor’s office: “They needed them for their emergency services operation, so I have no quarrel with that, but…”

Then there’s the New Orleans-based cell phones that aren’t working. The paper’s e-mail server has been down for days. And reporters who have cars can’t find gas — or, for that matter, bottled water, a shower or even a mattress.

“Who would have thought we’d ever have a situation where you wouldn’t be able to find a mattress salesman to sell you a mattress?” asked Kovacs.

He lucked out in that department, securing from a friend on the LSU faculty both a mattress and air conditioning — “two pleasures I haven’t enjoyed in a long time.”

The biggest need among the print and broadcast journalists piling into Baton Rouge this week, said Kovacs, is housing.

“There are a lot of people here alone without families and no place to stay,” he said, noting that some have secured dorm rooms at LSU but others are “just desperate.”

He added: “We have a lot of people sleeping on floors in places where they may or may not have a shower. If anybody knows people who will give somebody a key to their place and let them (sleep and) put some beer in their fridge, that’s the kind of thing we’re looking for.”

(If you do know of such possibilities within 30 miles or so of Baton Rouge, see this page and let us know at Poynter.)

Kovacs’ biggest worry is a colleague who has been out of touch since the weekend.

In a note posted on Romenesko Thursday morning, Kovacs said The Times-Picayune had lost contact with reporter Leslie Williams, who had been assigned to cover the hurricane on the Mississippi coast.

By Thursday night, there was still no word from him.

“He’s an extraordinarly cautious guy,” Kovacs said, “and he’s covered a lot of hurricanes. So I’m thinking positive thoughts even though I haven’t heard anything. I keep thinking he’s OK.”

He said a couple of other staffers have also not been heard from in recent days.

“They weren’t on assignment,” Kovacs said, “but I’m still praying for them.”