Publishing Despite Hell and High Water
By Carolyn Melago
Grand Forks Herald editors Andy Bradford and Brad Dokken wondered why they were even going to St. Paul. Flooding of the Red River had transformed their city into a ghost town. Rising waters had chased them from their homes, leaving them sleepless for days. The Herald's presses lay under 54 feet of murky water and the newsroom ultimately was left gutted by a day of fires.
They knew their mission was to continue publishing the 118-year-old newspaper by borrowing the production facilities of their fellow Knight-Ridder paper, the St. Paul Pioneer Press. But they had no idea how they were going to accomplish it.
"You're just kind of numb because so much is happening," Dokken says.
Despite the numbness and chaos, the Grand Forks Herald hasn't missed a day of publication since record floods that began on April 19 left the North Dakota city of 50,000 uninhabitable. The paper's tireless staff, working across two states, is quick to credit Pioneer Press employees and a rural North Dakota school for making what they had deemed impossible possible.
Only a third of the Herald's press run had been completed early that Saturday morning when water started rushing into the paper's three buildings. A stopgap newsroom was set up at the University of North Dakota, where roving reporters checked in, and frantic editors transmitted copy 300 miles away to the Pioneer Press in Minnesota.
As the Herald's surrogate publisher, the Pioneer Press' first hurdle was solving the puzzle of converting Herald copy from an IBM system to a format readable by QuarkXPress, the Press' Macintosh-driven software. But before Bradford and Dokken even reached St. Paul to oversee the inevitable production obstacles, the Press' paginators had scanned the Herald's flag, matched its typefaces and built comparable style sheets.
"They had just done an incredible amount of behind-the-scenes work," Dokken says. "It was really the first good thing that happened to us in a few days."
About a half-dozen copy and news editors, along with several photo and graphic editors, arrived at the Pioneer Press during the days and weeks following the flood. Other Knight-Ridder papers, including the Charlotte Observer, Miami Herald and San Jose Mercury News, also donated journalists. They all had to divide their thinking and energy between the Pioneer Press and the Herald, which were to be printed back-to-back on the same presses.
Pioneer Press Senior Editor Dee-Dee Strickland says that even though all the journalists managed to mesh, giving Grand Forks editors control over the production of their own paper was a high priority.
"They've all been sort of absorbed into this one big team," she says, "but we've been careful to have Grand Forks people drive the production, to make decisions and keep their separate identities."
Back in Grand Forks, floodwaters kept firefighters from extinguishing a huge downtown blaze that engulfed the Herald's newsroom, destroying more than a century's worth of yellowed clippings stored in the Herald's library. If that wasn't enough to create a cloud of hopelessness over Herald staffers trying to salvage their lives and jobs at the same time, continued flooding forced them to abandon their makeshift campus newsroom to relocate again to a one-story school in nearby Manvel, North Dakota.
The Herald staff settled in the Manvel school's library, taking over 25 Macintoshes, a music room, several trailers and the health classroom. Working in the same building as 205 kindergarteners through eighth graders rattled staffers at first, but eventually they learned to coexist.
"It's like parallel universes," says Herald Editor Mike Jacobs. "The students and teachers are going about their education mission, and we're going about our information mission. We do see each other, we do run into each other, but it's really going remarkably smoothly."
Manvel Public School Principal Richard Ray says that with only a few minor adjustments — moving music classes to the gym, holding gym classes outdoors and having students check out library books from mobile carts — the school managed to keep its schedule intact. Besides being a little crowded, he says, the children are excited to provide their local newspaper with a foster home.
The Herald, in turn, provided the students with a unique educational experience. "The kids think it's neat," Ray says. "Sure, their routine has been upset, but it's not every day that elementary-aged kids get to see a newspaper produced."
Not that the kids are seeing anything remotely resembling "normal" newspaper production. For the Herald staff in Manvel, every day is a struggle.
"I think our operation resembles what a hospital emergency room must be like on a daily basis," says Liz Fedor, a Herald reporter stationed at the elementary school. Besides the seven-day work weeks and 10-hour workdays, there's the added pressure of extra-early deadlines — 5 p.m. at the latest — to ensure that the Pioneer Press has enough time to print both newspapers.
The early deadlines have exasperated reporters covering some of the biggest stories of their careers. Many have employed creative tactics to get the job done under duress.
Fedor knew she had to file a story about Newt
Gingrich's April 25 visit to Grand Forks, but the Speaker of the House's plane wasn't even scheduled to touch down until 5 p.m. — exactly when copy was due. She caught Gingrich before he left his Washington office, interviewing him on his car phone en route to the airport about his plans for flood relief. Gingrich's plane landed an hour late, but Fedor's story was filed on time.
The newspapers produced under these challenging circumstances were delivered by chartered planes to shelters in Grand Forks, as well as to other parts of North Dakota and northern Minnesota. The "flood editions" of the paper also were included as a supplement to the Pioneer Press, and were given away at grocery stores and newsstands throughout the Twin Cities. The press run of the Herald more than tripled from its usual 38,000 to 117,000, leveling off at about 50,000 two weeks after the flood.
Jacobs says continuing to publish the Herald was crucial for the uprooted Grand Forks community. The paper's staff helped the city it was forced to flee by offering "people-finders" in its print version and a "Flood of the Century" bulletin board on its online version ( www.
northscape.com ). Staffers have taken pride in the Herald's efforts to provide its community with a way to remain connected despite the many miles and mass wreckage that now separate so many of its evacuated
Knight-Ridder Chairman and CEO P. Anthony Ridder told the Grand Forks staff on April 22 that he was "absolutely committed to the Grand Forks Herald," but it is highly unlikely the paper will return to its old location. Despite the fact that one of its three downtown buildings escaped severe damage, Ridder and Grand Forks editors say the risk of losing more expensive new presses is a gamble they are unwilling to take. Also, a permanent dike the city plans to build could be constructed right between the Herald's other two buildings.
"I never know what to tell people when they ask how long we'll be here. It changes day to day," says News Editor Jeff Beach, one of the Herald staffers who worked at the Pioneer Press but has since returned to Manvel. "We've gotten into a bit of a rhythm, but every day is a new challenge."