July 20, 2018

In May, Emily Barske graduated from Iowa State University. On July 9, she started her first job as news editor at her hometown daily newspaper, the Marshalltown, Iowa Times-Republican. Eleven days later, her first big news story came to town in the form of a building-bashing tornado.

As she waited with the TR’s small staff in the newsroom’s basement, her ears filled with pressure, “like being in airplane times 10.” She could hear things banging against the building outside. A window blew out.

It felt like it all took just a few minutes, but when she walked out of the newsroom with publisher Abigail Pelzer, they found a downtown that had been devastated. Pelzer wrote Friday about checking on everyone’s families, then getting to work.

“We’ve got to let our community know what to expect,” Pelzer told Poynter on Friday. “We have to let them know what’s coming and how to get through this. They’re depending on us.”

The TR’s newsroom sustained minor damage, Pelzer said, mostly to the roof. But the newsroom couldn’t operate from there thanks to power outages. Friday’s paper was produced in a nearby town at a sister paper.

Like Barske, Pelzer’s newer to her role. She’s been the publisher of the TR for four months. Before that, she was the editor of the Newton (Iowa) Daily News and previously was in Marshalltown as the TR’s editor.

On Friday, TR’s staff reported on the storm’s damage and the aftermath. Both Pelzer and Barske have internet at their homes, so they worked to keep the website updated from there.

It wasn’t hard for Pelzer to switch back into news mode. She’s driven around town in her black Honda Pilot with a taped-up window and other damage from the tornado that looks like a dumpster dragged across it.

“There’s work to be done,” she said. “We don’t have time to stop.”

Barske, who is looking for an apartment, has been working from her family’s home, which was in a part of town that didn’t suffer any damage.

She said she was excited to take the job in her hometown, telling the story of her community, bringing what she’d learned as the editor at the Iowa State Daily and learning how a more traditional newspaper can serve its readers.

“She’s proven herself,” Pelzer said, “especially in this tragedy that’s hit her hometown.”

So far, the hardest part, other than getting through the tornado, has been figuring out a new system while trying to update people live online. Barske is learning. She’s also seeing the value of actual newspapers on days like today.

“Print still matters, as we found out,” she said. “All the copies around town are sold out.”

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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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