“This Is Why I Do This in the First Place”
By Rachel Smolkin
When Hurricane Katrina ripped through Mississippi last August, the journalists of Gulfport's Sun Herald confronted the misery in their lives and in their community with grit and courage. The then-121-year-old Knight Ridder paper (soon to be a McClatchy paper) had never missed a day of delivery, and didn't after the storm hit. For its "valorous and comprehensive coverage," the Sun Herald shared the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for public service with New Orleans' Times-Picayune. AJR Managing Editor Rachel Smolkin asked Sun Herald Executive Editor Stan Tiner to reflect on covering Katrina and his paper's future. An edited transcript follows.
Q: Give us a sense of the emotional and journalistic challenges of covering Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
A: There's the immediate time in which you're swept up by the moment; it permeates your surroundings all the time, and it doesn't go away. The adrenaline or whatever it is that allows you to go at the pace for a while eventually wears off, and you have to structure your coverage much better and be very deliberative about it. Everybody on the staff is living the same kind of life that people in the community are. You really understand the things that are hurting their lives, whether it's the loss of your home, or dealing with the [Federal Emergency Management Agency] people, the insurance people. You go through that period, and then you get to a point you think much more globally. You've got this terrible thing that happened, but you've also got this incredible opportunity to play a role in rebuilding a community.
Q: What was the worst moment for you, and the proudest moment?
A: I think the worst moment was those early days when we just didn't know whether some of [our] staff was alive. It never left my mind, "I've not heard from this person. I know they live in a bad place." The real joys came at the time when [staff] came back in. That made the newsroom whole. Being able to report a big story like this, it was like a privilege. I think one of the greatest things--I know you've heard this from every person who delivered a newspaper after Hurricane Katrina--but the feeling of, "By gosh, this is why I do this in the first place!"
Q: What did it mean to you and your staff to win the Pulitzer?
A: The thing that makes the Pulitzer special from our standpoint is like "Hoosiers." The little paper probably isn't going to win; it only occasionally wins, but it seems to make [the effort] worthwhile: that if you work hard, maybe you can achieve the best that your profession stands for. I didn't have any notion of whether our journalism was good enough to do it. On the day the announcement came down, we asked everybody in the whole newspaper to come to the newsroom. We had somebody looking at the Pulitzer site and somebody looking at the [Associated Press] site, and the assistant city editor, Blake Kaplan, said, "We won." And there was a brief moment when everybody cheered, and then it stopped, sort of abruptly. There were a lot of people crying. It was like all the work we've done, all the things that people suffered, this is a good thing that has come out of this, and in some way is just a little bit of recognition for the importance of our story.
Q: How's business? Are circulation and advertising back to pre-Katrina levels?
A: We thought we were going to be off in circulation by 25 to 35 percent. We did give the paper away for about six weeks, [which] ramped circulation up to 80,000; we're usually at 50. I've been telling people it's amazing how many papers you can sell when you give them away. We're down about 4 percent in circulation, which amazes us. We never thought we could come back so quickly in that regard. Advertising has been incredibly strong, but it's a different kind of advertising. A lot of our retail went away. Classified advertising is off the charts. When you think about it, everybody has a construction need; they need to get a roof done, drywall, painting, all the things you would need to rebuild a home.
Q: Do you have any sense of how the new ownership may change or impact the paper?
A: Tony Ridder came down the afternoon the Pulitzers were announced. We're incredibly grateful to Knight Ridder, both to the corporate level and our colleagues across the company. We have a great admiration for McClatchy as a company, and incidentally, Gary Pruitt [McClatchy's chairman and CEO] and Howard Weaver [its vice president for news] came two days after Tony arrived. Gary Pruitt and Howard both made a big hit across the newspaper. They talked a great deal about the local autonomy that they practice. They put a lot of emphasis on the online product, and that's one of the great things we have done coming out of this. We have learned the power of sunherald.com. The tens of thousands of people who evacuated to Atlanta, Jackson, Houston, wherever they went to, we couldn't put a print product in their hands..but they got it online.
Q: Any thoughts about the future?###
A: What we learned in Katrina is that the newspaper had a lot of heart. Editorials were extremely passionate and advocated for the people here. I think people will study what happened here, because I think it's good news for newspapers. A passionate paper that's fighting for its people and is willing to take a stand for some things, all of that means newspapers can be very successful for a long time.