October 14, 2016

On Saturday, The Robesonian flooded in Lumberton, North Carolina.

That day, The Fayetteville Observer in Fayetteville, North Carolina lost power for awhile.

By Monday, the floods hit the building of The Times-Leader in Grifton, North Carolina.

As of Friday, 22 people have died in North Carolina since Hurricane Matthew hit the Tar Heel State. Many roads remain closed, and thousands of people still don’t have power. But journalists there have found ways to keep working: relocating, focusing on Facebook and working with competitors to cover a fast-changing story.

You’ll find The Robesonian, a daily, operating out of an office in the Public Services Department at Lumberton’s City Hall. Sarah Willets, managing editor, hasn’t been back to the newspaper’s flooded building since she stopped by Monday.

From that base, they’re covering rescues, the rising death toll and recovery efforts. They’re also keeping The Robesonian’s Facebook page updated with briefs including road openings and closures, water distribution points and more.

On Monday, when Willets was able to get out and talk to people, she asked them where they’d been getting their information from.

“What they told me is the only thing they can get on is Facebook,” she said, “so that’s why we’re focusing on Facebook.”

The Times-Leader in Grifton has also been displaced. Now, the small team of the weekly works at the nearby newsroom of The Farmville Enterprise. Both papers are part of Cooke Communications. Editor Angela Harne has been staying at a hotel near the Farmville newsroom.

The Times-Leader was able to publish this week, she said, though carriers have had trouble getting the paper to subscribers with so many roads closed. Like The Robesonian, Harne has used social media as a way to reach readers where they are.

On Saturday, The Fayetteville Observer lost power for a while and journalists in the newsroom worked off a backup generator. As journalists often do when disaster hits their communities, they’ve kept working despite what they’re dealing with in their own homes, including flooding.

The Observer has also done something new — they’re working with the competition. Lorry Williams, deputy editor for news, reached out to Willets for news of what was happening in Lumberton, which was unreachable until recently. The Observer is helping The Robesonian, too, Willets said, by sharing state press releases and offering moral support.

It’s common for both newspapers to share work with papers in the same company, but not with an unrelated publication.

“But when things are so bad and your priority is to tell people what’s going on so they’re informed,” Williams said, “that’s your common goal.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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