This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can sign up here.
If you’re like me, regardless of where you live and what you do, your heart is in Texas this week.
So, we’re pausing here to spend a few moments with Texas journalists. My colleagues and I have spent the past few days talking with local journalists covering the rising waters in Houston. One started covering weather as a side project after leaving a daily newsroom. Two previously asked what would happen when the worst came, and now they’re back to tell us. Another captured an amazing image in the middle of a disaster.
Now, we’re going to go to Victoria, Texas.
There, a little more than two hours southwest of Houston, the Victoria Advocate has covered the story of Hurricane Harvey and the storms that have followed while dealing with loss of power, no water and a displaced staff.
J.R. Ortega is the copy desk chief at the Advocate. We spoke by phone Monday.
On Friday, most of the staff showed up at the Advocate, a 171-year-old newspaper, with non-perishables, air mattresses, clothes and, in some cases, pets. The newspaper, which is the second-oldest in Texas, bought $100 worth of food and supplies.
They planned to stay a couple of days.
“We’re still here,” J.R. told me.
Friday night and into Saturday morning, the storm hit and the newsroom lost power. They have three backup generators which powered a few computers. They lost water, too. They haven’t been able to print the newspaper since Friday.
Instead, the newsroom has focused on publishing breaking news and resources for the community, reporting on Facebook Live and telling the stories of residents from the seven counties the Advocate serves. Those stories show up online and are woven together for the front page of the e-edition.
The power came back on Sunday. On Monday, the water returned. About 11 people are still staying at the office. Two reporters sleep under their desks. One found a fainting couch in the women’s bathroom. A few waiting room couches are makeshift beds, too.
Not that anyone’s sleeping very well.
The days blur together a bit for J.R., who made the mistake of trying to sleep by the window on Saturday night. When 120 mile-per-hour winds came through, water leaked in, and he could hear the wind whistling through the quiet old building. Outside, the bells of a nearby church rang on for hours.
The Advocate staff isn’t alone here. There’s a room for cats, although a cat named Felix has taken over the copy room. A dog named Midna claimed the library. There’s also a room with other pets, including a rabbit.
The journalists have been eating well, at least. A restaurant, Guerrilla Gourmet, is based on the building’s first floor. The chef, James T. Canter, fired up his food truck and has been feeding the newsroom as well as the community.
Staffers have between 30 and 40 stories they’re updating regularly. And they’re not just helping the community through reporting. People have been calling the newsroom from outside Victoria and asking for help figuring out the best directions to reach loved ones in town. A few staffers are dedicated to figuring out the best routes.
“And we will help them get to where they need to go,” he said. “As a community paper, we feel like we need to keep them safe.”
Since the storm hit, they’ve gone to check out their own homes. J.R.’s apartment has about half an inch of standing water. He figured on Monday that he’d stay at the newsroom for at least one more day.
“I’m not sure if I wanna go back right now,” he said. “What’s the point? Here we have water, electricity, food and internet.”
And, on Sunday night, they had one more comfort. A few hours after the season finale of “Game of Thrones” aired, staffers held an impromptu movie night with an HDMI cable, a laptop and an HBO Go login.
“It was nice,” J.R. said. “It was kind of good for us just to feel a little normal. Things have felt just not normal.”
It’s a funny place to find respite, he said, but “it was just nice to sit down and be like, the one thing that’s not gonna change is ‘Game of Thrones.'”
Thank you, J.R., for taking time I know you don’t have to talk with us.
Next week, we’ll wrap up our previously scheduled discussion on skills. In the meantime, check out Joseph Lichterman’s fantastic list of journalism newsletters. The Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University has a three-day fellowship for local journalists coming up. And the results are in from Linda Austin’s survey on the most urgent training journalists need.
Thanks for reading. If you’re reporting in Texas, thank you and hang in there. See you next week!