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American Journalism Review
Preparing for Disaster  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April 2002

Preparing for Disaster   

Whether its terrorist attacks, hurricanes or school shootings, news organizations are much better off if they have detailed plans for covering catastrophe.

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     


The news was gut-wrenching. A bomb had blown up a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. New York Times editors jumped on the story, dispatching nine people to the scene on the company plane.

As he ran out the door, reporter John Kifner threw into a bag any loose laptops and phones he could grab, along with office supplies the team might need. Kifner carting a brown paper bag full of "stuff" is not an image one might expect of a veteran at one of the nation's top newspapers. But the Times clearly was not prepared.

That changed after Kifner's return. In the spring of 1995 Kifner and Diane Ceribelli, an assistant to the managing editor, set to work creating a "doom room," a closet tucked away along a third-floor hallway, filled with every supply imaginable for covering disasters.

Inside the unmarked, locked closet are the predictable items a road warrior might require. There are six cell phones, four laptops, six tape recorders, a portable fax machine, two Trimline phones and enough notebooks, pens, pencils, surge protectors, scissors and staplers to set up a small office in a hotel room.

But the doom room also contains more exotic items: gas masks, a radiation detector, halogen lanterns, a small portable radio, a $1,200 bulletproof vest strong enough to stop fire from a bazooka and another vest able to withstand ordinary bullets.

Every other Monday morning, a clerk makes sure the cell phones are ready to go. "A lot of it is common-sense stuff," says Kifner, who recently returned from a reporting stint in Afghanistan and who has covered practically every major story in the last two decades. "But it gets you through the first one or two days--the most critical time--and allows you to get up and running. If you come in with all your basic stuff, it makes an enormous difference."

Of course, with electricity knocked out at the World Trade Center, cell phones jammed and the newsroom close by, the doom closet played a minor role in covering the attacks of September 11.

"Half the things we have require electricity, and there wasn't any down there," says Ceribelli. "So we are retrenching and trying to figure out what we need to do."

The doom room was created as part of then-Times Managing Editor Gene Roberts' effort to have the paper ready to respond rapidly to major news stories. Roberts, like other experienced editors, had come to understand the importance of being prepared to mobilize before the megastory breaks. During his tenure from 1994 to 1997, Roberts tried to form an overall plan for Big Story coverage. He not only set up the doom room but also a contingency plan for printing a skeleton paper and a computerized staff list based on zip code (the latter has since fallen by the wayside).

Most newsrooms are hard-wired to handle routine breaking news, but planning ahead is key to successfully navigating news that throws a curveball. That means everything from having equipment on hand, doom room-style, to contingency plans for publishing the newspaper when the power goes out, to detailed blueprints for reporting on specific events.

There is no doubt, say many editors, that having some kind of plan for covering catastrophe will make putting the paper out that much smoother when there's no time for reflection. Events such as Oklahoma City, Columbine and September 11 drive home that need.

And, editors say, it's best if such plans are written down, regularly reviewed and updated.

"Once the bomb explodes or the plane crashes, it may be too late to pull together a plan for coverage and logistics," Curt Hazlett, former managing editor of Maine's Portland Press Herald, wrote in a report for the American Press Institute. "Do it now, before the need arises."

Many reporters and editors are incredibly resourceful when it comes to dealing with breaking news, but any journalist who has been steeped in the chaos of a blockbuster knows that it takes more than resourcefulness.

"The moment you become an editor you should ask yourself: What could be the greatest or worst story that could happen to the community?" says Roberts, who now teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. "Earthquake? Somebody blowing up an airport? Students holding teachers hostage? It's interesting how many times it's happened in the last 10 years. And yet if you walked up to the editor at most papers and asked if they had a plan for a student walking in with an AK-47 rifle and shooting people, you'd find most papers haven't developed a plan for that because they don't think it can happen."

While many journalists would agree that they're valuable, written plans are a relatively new phenomenon in the newspaper business. Even now, few papers have them in their computer systems.

Some editors say there is little need for them since it's hard to envision a one-size-fits-all model. "We do not have any written plans," Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. wrote in an e-mail to AJR. "For us, the big story could be local, national or international--and all big stories are different--so no one plan would suffice." But, he added, "We have plenty of necessary equipment to cover almost anything."

Written plans are routinely prepared for scheduled events: the Olympics, the Super Bowl, political conventions, elections, inaugurations, large demonstrations.

The Miami Herald is ready to go when Fidel Castro, 75, dies. It's been preparing and revamping plans for covering the Cuban president's death for four years. The first one included leasing a cruise ship to moor off the coast of Cuba, since editors thought electricity and communication lines might be shaky on the island.

"We scrapped that idea," says Mark Seibel, the paper's managing editor for news. "What were we going to do? Keep a cruise ship on retainer for 20 years? Rather than plan something like that, with huge expenses, we decided it now makes more sense to treat it like any big story. We've got grown-up correspondents who can work in all kinds of conditions."

News organizations have also devised plans for recurring events, like violent weather and plane crashes. Written hurricane plans are standard at many Florida papers, including the Sarasota Herald Tribune, South Florida's Sun-Sentinel, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post. "Because we live in Florida and because every season we go through this cat-and-mouse game of A HURRICANE IS BEARING DOWN ON US, OH NO! we have a written plan," says Rosemary Armao, managing editor of the Herald Tribune. The Miami Herald even has a designated "hurricane editor."

Having learned from experience, many Florida papers possess step-by-step battle plans for getting people where they need to go and establishing contingency publishing plans.

"There are no doom rooms, but there are caches of batteries and rain gear and instant flat tire fixers and radios and other special gear for photographers and reporters," says Palm Beach Post Deputy Managing Editor Bill Rose, who has covered eight hurricanes. "A group of editors sat down and wrote this [hurricane] plan several years ago, and it is updated at least once a year. It was precipitated by the sheer fear of hurricanes. But it was updated intensely after [the devastating 1992 Hurricane] Andrew and has been furiously maintained ever since."

Making sure a newsroom has the appropriate equipment--and enough of it--is one way editors can prepare for the unexpected. "Reporters and photographers should all have equipment in their cars to enable them to remain outdoors under adverse conditions--warm clothing, good footwear, rain gear, flashlights, waterproof notebooks and pens, cell phones and extra batteries," wrote Hazlett in his report for API. "Don't scrimp. If a photographer says she needs a piece of equipment for emergency coverage, find a way to get it."

Some say the San Jose Mercury News, which won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, may have outperformed the San Francisco Chronicle because the Mercury News had a backup generator and the Chronicle didn't. "While the Chron had to put out a very slimmed-down version of the paper by flashlights and Macs," recalls former Mercury News reporter Jeff Gottlieb, "the Merc had all the electricity it needed."

After the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the Los Angeles Times' New York City bureau realized it was ill-prepared to cover such a story. Then-Bureau Chief John Goldman outfitted the office with police scanners and an emergency plan for covering terrorism.

"When I called into the office after the World Trade Center was hit [in September], we had reporters sitting by police scanners," recalls Maggie Farley, who covers the United Nations for the Times. "John got a half-dozen police scanners. He had us all outfitted with police passes, which wasn't something I normally need for covering the U.N. John actually tuned in after the first plane hit [on September 11] to hear what the response would be, and he was listening all the way through when the buildings collapsed. He could hear the panic in people's voices and hear the voice suddenly go silent."

One of the keys to drafting plans for the future is assessing past performances, then plugging the holes. Many papers quickly discovered their weakest links after hijacked airliners slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon September 11.

The Associated Press' New York City bureau learned the hard way just how valuable satellite phones would have been. With land phone lines destroyed in lower Manhattan and cell phone systems jammed, satellite phones would have ensured that reporters at Ground Zero could get through immediately to the bureau rather than roaming the streets searching for working pay phones.

"The cells were killing us," says Sam Boyle, AP's New York City bureau chief. "I hadn't thought about [satellite phones] before the Trade Center because what I knew of the equipment made me think it was still the bulky instrument of a few years ago. I learned their value during the coverage and am looking into getting one, possibly more."

After the crisis passes, it's valuable for editors to get together with reporters, photographers and page designers for a frank discussion of what the paper did right and what it could have done better. "This is crucial to writing a strong plan," says Frank Scandale, editor of the Record of Bergen County, New Jersey.

"We sit down and critique our coverage after every big story, such as a hurricane or a teacher shooting, and make changes to our coverage plans as a result," says the Palm Beach Post's Rose. "In other words, we try to learn from our mistakes."

In March 2001 Los Angeles Times Editor John Carroll had his editors critique the paper's coverage of the Santee, California, school shooting in which two were killed and 13 wounded. He could sense they didn't like it.

"I think we gave very good coverage, but afterwards we had a meeting and I talked about what the paper should do to react quickly," says Carroll. "Later I realized that some of the people were a little put off by my talking about how to cover a breaking story. On two occasions, we had sessions with editors about not only the desire to get there as fast as possible, but also how to set up the desk so that when all the copy pours in, the paper looks as if it had a plan."

Scandale knows well the difference between having a plan and not having one. On September 11, he dropped off his kids at school, then turned up Bruce Springsteen full throttle. His cell phone rang. "Are you listening to the radio?" his wife asked. Clearly, he wasn't.

"A plane just flew into the World Trade Center," she told him. Like many others, Scandale quickly concluded a Cessna or a traffic helicopter had smashed into one of the hulking 1,360-foot twin towers he saw every day from his office.

He tuned his radio to 1010 WINS, and then his secretary called. A second plane had struck.

"I assumed then it was terrorism, and I had that same deep, deep sickening feeling that I'd had with Columbine," he says. "I had that feeling like I wanted to vomit. The question 'What is going on?' looms. You are sick with personal fear and anxiety, and yet you have to go on. It was Columbine all over again. I knew: You gotta focus. You gotta plan. You gotta get that part of your brain to concentrate on being a journalist."

In 1999, Scandale was metro editor at the Denver Post when two high-school seniors murdered 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School (see "Covering the Big One," July/ August 1999). The coverage he directed won the staff the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news.

Once again, Scandale would be leading a newsroom covering a mind-boggling story. But this time he had something extra going for him.

After Columbine, Post editors critiqued the paper's coverage, looking for flaws. Then he and another Post editor, Jeanette Chavez, put together an 18-page document outlining what editors should consider before the unimaginable lands in their backyard.

Scandale brought his plan from Colorado to New Jersey. There was a slight glitch, though, on September 11: It lay buried somewhere in unpacked boxes on his office floor. Scandale had taken over as editor of the Record nine months before and hadn't gotten around to sharing his plan with his new staff.

"I thought Columbine was as big as you got until this one," says Scandale. "Watching how people react and learning how to handle it on the fly in Denver meant I just came here and fast-forwarded into knowing what to do."

Having given the Columbine coverage a great deal of thought, Scandale knew certain decisions had to be made early on. He knew getting as many people as possible right away to the World Trade Center and other key locations was crucial. He knew he had to decide instantly whether or not to put out an extra edition (the paper ran an eight-page extra). And he knew he had to decide whether to knock out ads scheduled for the A section. (He did, adding he considers that decision a no-brainer.)

"When this thing broke," says Scandale, "my team had not been versed in what we do. Even though it's chaos and you don't want to leave the desk for a minute, it's important you grab the team of leaders and managers, city desk people involved, and go over what's being covered. We would go into our little war room and make sure everybody knows who was doing what. Where you get into trouble is when three people show up at one hospital and nobody shows up at another."

Scandale says it's essential to take 15 minutes every two hours to meet and review. "That's the big thing I learned from Columbine," he says. "We had lots of meetings, quick ones, and let everybody talk. Between editions, you meet again. And before everybody went home, you wanted to make sure they had a plan for the next day."

Even well-laid plans are of little use if they are not updated. While the Miami Herald may have an intricate blueprint for covering Castro's demise, it must be periodically reassessed, says Managing Editor Seibel. "We have a newspaper-wide plan that goes into all the production aspects," says Seibel. "We've worked out with the production department what the options are depending on what time of day we learn of his death. We've figured out what the times are and reduced that to writing.

"From the newsroom perspective," he adds, "we've already assigned the basic stories to reporters, so if something happens reporters don't have to call in. The problem is, you have to constantly update that and we get behind, and then panic sets in. More than anything else is the discipline of staying up-to-date. When people leave the paper, there's a hole in your plan. We know how to keep it updated, but I confess, we don't always update it."

The paper had a minor scare last June when Castro fainted. It had been two months since the plan had been reviewed and the chosen design for page one no longer fit the paper's new smaller web size.

"We've updated everything since the fainting episode," says Seibel. "But a few more months can go by and we'll be obsessed with this war on terrorism and the plan will languish."

The New York Times' doom room is languishing, admits its former keeper, Diane Ceribelli. Her old boss, Gene Roberts, left in 1997 and she continued to keep it stocked under his successor, Bill Keller. Now Ceribelli is busy working in the Times' new television department and others help keep the doom room ready. But no one is specifically charged with overseeing it.

"It did come in handy to have the closet on September 11," Ceribelli says, "but not as handy as we want. There's only so many people to take care of this stuff. I set it up for Gene actually, but it's been let go a little bit. But the phones are still revved up for me every week, and we were better prepared than when we went into Oklahoma City, when we were not prepared at all."

There's a new team in charge at the Times, with Howell Raines serving as executive editor and Gerald Boyd as managing editor. When the airliners smashed into the World Trade Center, each man knew instinctively how to shift into breaking news mode. Each raced to the office that day the minute he heard of the first plane hitting the north tower.

"This event is so horrible, it's difficult to talk about moments of fulfillment," says Raines. "But I had the feeling that throughout that day and the days to follow that as a journalist I was in exactly the right place and that every experience in my 37 years in this profession since 1964 at the Birmingham Post Herald had prepared me for this moment."

Raines didn't even know how well prepared. He'd been editor of the Times' editorial page for the previous eight years, and before that its bureau chief in Washington and London. Raines had yet to learn about the doom room.

That's not surprising: September 11 was his sixth day on the job.

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