The Ties That Bind  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   August/September 2006

The Ties That Bind   

The local media’s heroic performance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina profoundly altered and deepened the relationship between the news organizations and the people of New Orleans. But can this close connection be sustained without added resources and new blood?

By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (mark@texaswatchdog.org) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.      


The banner story of the Father's Day edition of New Orleans' Times-Picayune was a throwback: "5 Teenagers Shot Dead in Central City."

This was the kind of story that a year ago might have failed to shock the residents of the onetime murder capital of the country. A brazen, bloody hit, maybe over drugs, maybe gang retaliation. The elements were so familiar and yet their context made the story disturbing.

Because for months murder had virtually disappeared here.

The killing returned to a gutted and abandoned neighborhood whose prospects for rebuilding are bleak. The rotten homes bear the spray-painted stamp of the National Guard, a circle broken into quadrants of code signifying when troops finally reached the house and how many people they found dead. All around the crime scene at the intersection of Josephine and Danneel streets were piles of debris. And, as if anyone in this city needed a more explicit reminder, there was a reference to the fact that violence, which declined dramatically after Hurricane Katrina, had rapidly escalated as more and more residents returned.

Katrina's hold on the local media remains almost complete nearly a year later as the city of New Orleans teeters on a most precarious fulcrum between rebirth and collapse. And perhaps not since World War II has there been such trust, dependence and goodwill invested by the public in the city's major news sources.

Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose, who became the conscience of the city through his wrenching dispatches, has achieved near rock star status in this town. WDSU-TV's Norman Robinson has won an admiring audience for his hectoring interviews of those responsible for funding and directing the reconstruction of the city. Monica Pierre, the morning voice of WQUE, a Clear Channel-owned hip-hop station, has taken a long leave to tour and discuss her Katrina experience. Jim Amoss, the editor of the Times-Picayune, has spoken, simply and eloquently, for the city's news gatherers. "This is the story of our lives."

The effect of the hurricane is the subtext for virtually all of the news covered in this city. Rebuilding dominates national policy coverage, as the federal government begins sending more than $10 billion to rebuild its housing, as billions more are pumped in for the repair of its ruptured and breached levee system and hundreds of millions of dollars are earmarked for bedrock industries like fishing. All politics, in a state notorious for its outsized operators and backroom chicanery, has become hurricane politics. Even restaurant reviews are a barometer for the city's economic health.

This single event has provided for news outlets a galvanizing focus on the local that has given nightly newscasts and the morning paper an immediacy and intimacy that has spurred demand. Editors and news directors have used the lessons of working during an emergency to change what they cover and how they deliver it.

Clearly, readers, viewers and listeners here have not forgotten that the people whose reports helped save their lives were victims of the hurricane, too. "Lifeline" is a word used again and again to describe what newspeople here see as a new relationship with their audiences. Under less trying circumstances, these news outlets would be the envy of the mainstream media, which are struggling mightily not to become irrelevant in the marketplace.

The tireless work and the new relationship were recognized by the dozens of state and national awards handed out this year. In addition to awarding the Times-Picayune a Pulitzer Prize for its breaking news reporting, the Pulitzer Prize Board saw fit to honor the paper in the public service category "for its heroic, multi-faceted coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, making exceptional use of the newspaper's resources to serve an inundated city even after evacuation of the newspaper plant." In awarding a Peabody for broadcast journalism to WWL-TV, the CBS affiliate in New Orleans, Peabody Committee Chair Peter Fiddick pointed to its "local focus, which was a lifeline to many of those most affected by the hurricane and the devastation that followed."

But like the city they are covering, newspeople in New Orleans teeter daily, hourly, between optimism and despair. Editors and news directors have had little time to ask whether the passion and energy generated by Hurricane Katrina can possibly be sustained and the new relationship with customers nurtured.

The staffs of each of the major news outlets have been decimated by the pressure of delivering stories for months in war zone conditions, at the same time wondering if their company and their city are going to make it. The Times-Picayune has lost 35 editorial staffers, some through burnout, and has replaced very few of them. Newspeople in this city — many of whom have worked 60- to 70-hour workweeks for months, most without a vacation — are simply exhausted.

Daily circulation at the Times-Picayune, 257,000 before Katrina, is off by nearly 70,000, and advertising is rebounding slowly. TV and radio stations have no idea of the size of their audiences because the city has for nearly a year been without much of its landline telephone system, making polling for the all-important ratings impossible.

"The local news has performed at a very high level post-Katrina," says Jay L. Perkins, associate professor of journalism at Louisiana State University's Manship School of Mass Communication. "Journalists need stimulation to perform at that high level, but eventually everything is going to have to change. If you are going to continue to do that job right, it is going to take resources. There are legitimate questions as to whether or not those resources will be committed."

Jim Amoss is driving his Infiniti sedan slowly over the buckled streets of the old neighborhoods northwest of the French Quarter. Into Gentilly, past the gutted remains of his parents' first home, and through Lakeview, where the homes of some of his colleagues are abandoned. For every hundred homes whose guts were pushed into the street by floodwater, there is one that has been reclaimed. These residents are pioneers, with no idea when or if they will again have neighbors. Speculators are offering lot prices and less for properties where many homes once fetched $400,000. The power poles that remain standing are covered in handbills for every manner of cleanup and contracting service.

Amoss was relatively lucky. His lovely older home was built on something called the Esplanade Ridge, one of three geologic high spots in the city created by some long-ago turn in the serpentine path of the Mississippi River. His house and the houses of many of his neighbors did not take on water, although the storm took his roof and looters some of the family's valuables. Suburbs west of the city were similarly fortunate.

"From here it's difficult to see," Amoss says, slowing to point out the work done on his brother's home in Lakeview, which was destroyed. "This city is still vibrant in its core. There is very definitely commercial life. You can see it in our advertising. It's robust. But we have a very dichotomous situation that has been hard to describe."

This dichotomy — schizophrenia might be a better word — is reflected in the story selection for the newspaper and TV news. On the day of our tour of misery, Amoss' reporters are breaking the news that the AFL-CIO intends to invest $700 million in various economic development projects, including housing. A bill to consolidate a system of seven assessors into one in Orleans Parish, a reform unthinkable before the hurricane and a necessary cost savings now, is sailing through the state House.

These stories run side by side with accounts asking why, after 10 months, does Mayor C. Ray Nagin still not have a comprehensive plan to use all of those federal billions to rebuild the city? There are photos of some of the thousands of abandoned cars that, after all this time, remain precisely where the receding floodwaters set them down. Many hotels and restaurants that have reopened must now hope they can survive the summer slow season. And, as if to mock the city, tropical storm Alberto is gathering force in the Gulf of Mexico.

Nowhere in the country right now are the stories that are being covered as intertwined with the health of the news organizations themselves.

The heads of each of the major newsrooms in the city say they have pledges of uncompromising support from corporate. Newhouse, the privately held company that owns the Times-Picayune, has told longtime Publisher Ashton Phelps Jr. that it has no intention of laying anyone off, Amoss says. Still, only one of those 35 open positions had been filled by the middle of July. The company has said the staff of the newspaper in the future will reflect the size of the community it serves. Most here are certain that no one will know for years how big the city will be.

"We've been told that until the business is built up we will not replace those 35 positions," Amoss says over lunch at Herbsaint, one of the many great restaurants that has recently reopened. "We're doing more with less. It's a stressed newsroom. But in the overall context, we are blessed with a remarkably farsighted and generous ownership. Some others might, defensibly, have resorted to layoffs."

Belo, the Dallas-based communications company, has given the same assurances of support to its station WWL-TV, long the ratings leader in New Orleans, says Executive News Director Sandy Breland. She and her assistant news director, Chris Slaughter, were among many on the WWL staff who lost their homes in the flooding. Several staff members have left the station. Breland and a group from the news station had recently returned from the Peabody ceremonies in New York.

"After we had moved the operation to Baton Rouge, our CEO, Robert Deckerd, flew in. It was a very emotional meeting," Breland says, sitting in her office with Slaughter and special projects director Mark Swinney. "He let us know in no uncertain terms that he was thinking of our welfare, making sure we were all right first. That gave us all a lot of confidence."

Clear Channel's promises to its employees in New Orleans went beyond holding the line. The San Antonio-based radio conglomerate, which owns seven stations in the New Orleans market, is replacing the classic rock format of WRNO with its first all-news station in the city, Regional Vice President Dick Lewis says.

Lewis got religion during Hurricane Katrina. Radio Ink, a trade publication, named Lewis America's Best Broadcaster last year for organizing 17 of the city's radio stations into the United Radio Broadcasters of New Orleans in the aftermath of the hurricane to make sure as many listeners in as many formats as possible were getting news. He convinced corporate executives that a primal hunger for local information wasn't likely to be sated for years.

"I felt like this was a laboratory for what radio could do," Lewis says with a veteran broadcaster's insinuating delivery. "We saw the opportunity to open real two-way communication with our audience. How will that translate into an all-news format? You're just going to have to stay tuned. I have a grand idea to engage the new citizen activists we have in this community, and I don't have the constraint of an old news operation to change. I have nothing to lose."

In a way, Anzio Williams feels like he hasn't anything to lose either, adding a one-hour daily news program and a daily 30-minute long-form interview program each night on WDSU, the NBC affiliate. Months before Katrina, Williams, the station's news director who had come from a Hearst sister station in Orlando in January 2005, had established morning news programs on Saturday and Sunday.

"With no ratings until this fall, I don't have anything hanging over my head," says Williams, who favors shirts with white French cuffs and collars and a bit of the brash. "We're making news decisions based on what's right, and right now, everything works."

Williams is particularly pleased with the interview segment Hot Seat hosted by station anchor Robinson. Like much programming on stations that traditionally run behind in the ratings, Hot Seat has earned its reputation by being confrontational and edgy. Robinson burnished his attack dog image moderating a mayoral debate along with "Hardball's" Chris Matthews on MSNBC in May. At one point, Robinson abandoned his moderator's role and called Nagin "immoral" for statements the mayor had made on the rebuilding of housing in the city.

The new pugnaciousness, Williams says, reflects the desire of his viewers to have harder questions asked of the people in whose hands the future rests.

"We are valued now because, in some cases, we were helping people make life-altering decisions. The news got infinitely more personal. What we learned is that people come out of this wanting more answers, more information. We're trying to continue along the lines of the mission we started during the hurricane: doing right by the people."

This more personal style translates, in large and small ways, to intensifying local coverage in what has always been thought of as a city-sized small town made up of people who identify with their neighborhood first.

In her 16 years with WQUE, Angela Harrison-Watson — "Uptown Angela" to her listeners — had become expert at creating a cheerful vibe with music and celebrity gossip. Since Katrina, Harrison-Watson, who is also the station's program director, has studded all the station's shows with public service announcements, particularly about her listeners' schools. She has interviewed Mayor Nagin, Jesse Jackson and Denzel Washington about hurricane-related issues.

Broadcasting in exile from Baton Rouge during Katrina, Lewis' United Broadcasters paired Uptown Angela with Garland Robinette, a newsman for 20 years who reinvented himself in talk radio on WWL, the big news radio station in New Orleans. Harrison-Watson says she got over being intimidated by the prospect of working with Robinette and has embraced news.

Nowhere has the impulse to deliver news been demonstrated more pointedly at WQUE than on its Web site, Harrison-Watson says. In fact, without the Internet, news would have ceased to exist in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. "The whole time, the Net was the only way for us to figure out what was going on inside the city," says Greg Meffert, chief technology officer for Nagin and a member of his executive staff. "For a while the Web became City Hall."

As soon as Meffert was able to round up enough donated equipment, he created a free wireless network, the first of its kind run by a city. Meffert called it essential to business, and in the following months use of the city's Wi-Fi succeeded beyond all of Meffert's expectations. Meffert has continued to defend its necessity, even after a lobbying effort by several communications companies that say a government-run network violates the Fair Competition Act.

Meffert's defiance is rooted in his conviction that the Web will be the ultimate tool for the reform of politics and business in New Orleans. The local media have begun to use this tool in ways never considered before the hurricane, he says.

The news outlets discovered that, far better than their core products, the Internet could reach and bring together an international diaspora. The Times-Picayune could not publish on paper for four days after the storm. WDSU-TV was off the air for three days, and several others lost the ability to transmit their signals. In the early going the Web was the only outlet for their work. The paper and several stations set up sites for evacuation, relief, missing persons and, later, jobs. At the height of its effectiveness, the Times-Picayune site was getting 30 million hits a day. WWL-TV's site got 15 million a day and WDSU-TV's more than three million. Today, the sites commonly include extensive information about the hurricane season, insurance, construction, transportation, schools and jobs.

After more than eight months, the Times-Picayune's graphics department posted an interactive re-creation of Katrina and its aftermath, a sign, Amoss says, that the newspaper has begun to step back and take stock of what happened.

"No amount of preaching on my part could have changed the culture vis-à-vis the Internet before the hurricane," Amoss says. "There was this convergence of technology which has for some time been available to all of us and the palpable demonstration every day that we could not have done without it and the common experience of it felt by all of us. There is nothing quite so powerful as seeing your voice amplified so many times to make a convert of you."

"I think we live in a glorious time for local news," says Dave Walker, who covers television and radio for the Times-Picayune. "It was like the first really great experiment of TV news on the Internet, and it was a tremendous success. Suddenly, you have an endless story and a bottomless newshole. It was filled with elemental reporting, more personal reporting, not slick and packaged. It was the opposite of TV news as we know it."

The new approaches to reaching audiences that emerged during Katrina changed the lives of some journalists profoundly. Editors who took teams of reporters back into New Orleans after the evacuation — like former Times-Picayune Sports Editor David Meeks, now the paper's city editor — emerged as leaders in the newsroom.

But for others the consequences were grim.

After taking a leave of absence for a month, Times-Picayune photographer John McCusker went back to work on June 20. McCusker spent much of the leave sleeping off exhaustion and attending therapy sessions three times a week. As a colleague told him, it was easier getting into the foxhole than getting out.

McCusker says he had essentially become nonfunctional, a joker who had become humorless, a man who had given up cigarettes 20 years ago who was smoking two packs a day. On the day the Pulitzer Prizes were announced, McCusker's wife, Johanna Schindler, told her husband that she had gotten a new job, as director of public relations for the University of New Orleans. McCusker rejoiced and then spent the next day at home curled up in a ball, weeping. It was time, he says, to get help. "It's very simple. You have to see if you can get your head turned around, to look away from the past, look to the future and go on," he says.

McCusker's ancestry reaches back to the New Orleans of colonial Spain. For 20 years all he ever wanted to do was shoot pictures for the Times-Picayune. When the call came to send staff back into New Orleans at the height of the flooding, his wife and one of his three children moved to the paper's temporary headquarters in Baton Rouge. His family would stay with Schindler's relatives in Alabama for the next four months while McCusker roamed the city shooting.

"You have to understand the depth of the horror that the city was," McCusker says. "Tens of thousands of people on the freeways stranded. The children begging for food and water. The looting at the Wal-Mart. It was of biblical proportions." Without coming to terms with his own sadness, McCusker says, he was incapable of helping his wife and children, who are now back in New Orleans. Therapy helped McCusker return to work. His first assignment after his return was to photograph National Guardsmen ordered into the city after the Central City slayings.

"I feel completely different than the last day before my leave. I was just completely spent. I wanted to come back. I'm not going to leave here. This is who I am. This is why it hurts so much."

Columnist Chris Rose used to be a middle-aged writer of light fare and gossip. Today he is the author of a collection of his newspaper columns, "1 Dead in Attic," a reference to the shorthand used during the search for bodies after the hurricane. Several of those columns made up an entry that was a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize for commentary. "Chris became this voice of people's grief and anxiety, hope and despair," Amoss says. "The transformation has been quite remarkable."

Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that staff writers Mark Schleifstein and John McQuaid wrote a book while they were covering Katrina. "Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms," due out this summer, continues the work of two reporters who won awards for a series of stories predicting more than three years ago the damage a Katrina-like storm could wreak. (Their colleague Metro Editor Jed Horne is traveling the country promoting his account in "Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City.")

Schleifstein is among the stalwarts on the Times-Picayune staff who are fiercely loyal to their newspaper and to their city. He and McQuaid were the lead reporters on an investigation of the region's fishery that won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for public service. His opinions carry weight not only in the newsroom.

In remarks he made at the Investigative Reporters and Editors convention in Fort Worth in June, Schleifstein expressed pride in the work his paper and other local media did during and after flooding. But he expressed doubt, frustration and a sense that New Orleans has been left behind by the rest of the country.

He and others worry that the local media's vibrant relationship with news consumers cannot be sustained without new fuel. "Everybody in this business is just running on fumes," colleague Walker says. "At some point everybody's got to come back down to earth."

Schleifstein is concerned that some of them will come back down somewhere else. "There has been a lot of good reporting done in this city. You can bet we're going to be cherry picked" by other news organizations.

Katrina's vivid reminder of the indispensability of local news is jeopardized by the precarious futures of the news organizations that will forever be defined by her, LSU's Perkins says.

"The opportunity to chronicle the rebuilding of a great American city is a fabulous opportunity, which is why the Picayune is doing what it's doing," Perkins says. "But to do local reporting the way it needs to be done, it takes time and it takes money. If you can't hire new people, at some point you're going to hit the wall."

When might that be? "I can't tell you," Perkins says, "This book has never been written, so no one knows how it will end."

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