September 12, 2017

Last month, New York Times reporter Clifford Krauss wrote about fleeing to the second floor of his home with “some of our valuables, food, water, and of course our three-year-old cockapoo, Sweetie” as Hurricane Harvey’s flood waters entered his home. He continued to report, filing even as he lost electricity.

We know that journalists tend not to shirk away from natural disasters. They stay when disaster strikes, often sleeping in newsrooms during crises so that they can continue to report — even when others evacuate, and even when their own homes and lives might be upended in the process.

As the flood waters fade and national reporters start to leave Florida and Texas in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, respectively, local journalists will put in long hours as they report on the aftermath of these disasters — while sometimes simultaneously trying to put their own personal lives back together.

How do people who work in journalism help their colleagues during and after these crises?

After Irma, there were reports that the Miami Herald welcomed reporters from other organizations into their newsroom to set up shop. And reporters from around the country pitched in to keep coverage at sister stations going, even when electricity or broadcast towers went down locally.

But there are also ways that people who work in journalism are helping their colleagues rebuild their personal lives. Colleagues Helping Colleagues (CHC) is a donation fund that was set up by Greater Public in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Over the past 12 years, the fund has raised over $90,000 and provided assistance for public media employees who have been directly affected and lived through a dozen national disasters.

“[After Hurricane Katrina] there was definitely a national urge to help out,” says Andrew Leitch, the Director of Marketing & Member Station Relations for Greater Public, which helps stations with fundraising, marketing, and engagement. “Folks in public media were looking for a way to personalize their giving, and we knew that people working in the New Orleans station needed the help. Our leadership at the time decided to start raising money — and the response was overwhelming.”

I reached out to Leitch to learn more about the fund, which Greater Public administers on behalf of the public media system, and which is now focused on efforts across Texas and Florida.

Kramer: I’m curious about what moves people to participate to donate directly to their journalism colleagues.

Leitch: Virtually all the donors to the fund are employees of public media stations or the national networks. They seem to really admire the coverage that these organizations [currently] in Texas have done before, during, and after the storm. And, they understand how difficult that must be to do amidst the personal upheaval that Harvey has caused for public media employees and their families.

And public media is a system, I think this rush to support shows the real strength that we have as a national community. We look out for each other.

Kramer: I'm wondering if you can share any personal stories about what has motivated people to give?

Leitch: Donors leave their well-wishes when they give. Here are some samples:

  • “Thank you for your dedication to providing the news we all rely on even through great personal loss. Your service to the public does not go unnoticed.”
  • “Thank you for all that you do to keep the public informed on a daily basis — it's so needed. I hope this helps you do that even just a little bit as we start to rebuild.”
  • “We know that radio is an essential part of recovery and community. Keep up the great work!”
  • “I am so grateful and humbled by the work my colleagues at Houston Public Media have continued to do despite the real physical damage to their workplace and personal property as well as the emotional toll they burden during this time. Thank you! I hope this fund offers you some amount of material and mental relief amid the stress.”

Kramer: How do you vet recipients and do you have any stories to share about how this has helped recipients in specific disaster situations, like Hurricane Harvey?

Leitch: To be eligible, you must be an employee of a public broadcasting station and be able to substantiate disaster related losses/expenses sustained that, to the best of the applicant’s knowledge, are not covered by private insurance or other government programs.

We’re hearing that it’s going to take weeks or months for FEMA inspections, insurance adjusters, etc. Our goal right now is to move quickly to provide immediate comfort and cash for people whose lives have been turned upside-down by this storm. We are processing some requests within 24 hours.

For example, one person’s apartment complex had an electrical fire during the storm. A few days later, the building owner determined that the damage to the complex had been too extensive and terminated the family’s lease due to a natural disaster. This person has just a bag with very little clothes and a few personal effects. Everything else is locked away in that apartment, which has been deemed unsafe to enter.  They are using the funds to help cover a deposit on a new rented place to live and to cover the costs of living out of a bag in temporary lodgings.

Another person drove into high water on their way work to work. The engine sustained water damage, possibly a total loss. Their insurance will inspect it as soon as they have someone available (no knowing when this will be, since there are hundreds of thousands of other cars affected simultaneously). The fund is helping her rent a car for a week so she can get to work.

Kramer: We see a lot of fundraising efforts around crisis situations like this. What motivated you to specifically design an effort for public media personnel?

Leitch: As vital media outlets, our colleagues at local public radio and TV stations in the affected region have remained steadfast in their vital service to their communities and will continue to in the days and months to come — despite their own significant personal losses.

Kramer: How do you get the word out during a disaster? How are the funds disseminated?

Leitch: Greater Public has extensive staff lists and networks for the stations. The day after Harvey hit, we sent email to every contact we had in that region. Greater Public’s CEO, Joyce MacDonald, contacted some of the GMs in the area as well. Now the word is spreading within stations. We’ve received 10 requests so far and expect to receive more in the coming weeks.

The application process takes 5 minutes and can be completed on our website. Donors can also give using that link.

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Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.…
Melody Kramer

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