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From AJR,   January/February 1998  issue

The Grand Forks Herald's Road to Recovery   

The North Dakota paper battles back after a massive flood.

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

The North Dakota paper battles back after a massive flood.

Out of an elementary school and into an old department store building: Grand Forks Herald staffers have learned to live with unconventional newsrooms.

Despite unenviable aesthetics and a long road to business as usual, the 38,000-circulation North Dakota daily has surfaced from the floods that immersed much of Grand Forks last spring and left some residents — and the paper — homeless.

During the crisis, the paper kept publishing. It moved into makeshift newsrooms, from April to June in a school, and since then in an old department store.

Like family ties strengthened by tragedy, the paper's bond with the city of 50,000 is newly fortified. Since the floods, Herald staffers have practiced "journalism in the first person plural," says Editor Mike Jacobs, who was recently named Editor of the Year by the National Press Foundation. "We were returned to frontier times, when the man who founded the Grand Forks Herald needed a community to establish a business," he says. "We need to be a part of the rebuilding of the community in order to survive."

Support from readers thankful for a lifeline to local news has reminded staffers of the paper's value. "The most important thing [we learned] is how vital the newspaper is to a community," says the 50-year-old Jacobs. "Our cynicism and despair about the business was washed away. There isn't a person who works here who doesn't have a new appreciation of the value of our daily work."

Publisher and President Michael Maidenberg agrees. "We came out of this whole tragedy more unified, more together, with a stronger sense of purpose than ever," he says. "People feel a renewed sense of pride in the newspaper...because they have heard in very direct and powerful ways from readers that the newspaper really meant a lot."

Maybe the positive feedback is what's helping the 200-person staff to cope with the stress of producing a paper in odd surroundings.

Until June, when renovations are complete on the one Herald building, of three, that survived the floods and the fires that followed, the paper is housed at what used to be a discount department store. It moved into its retail home, essentially a warehouse of chairs, tables and PCs, on June 30 from cramped quarters in an elementary school in nearby Manvel, North Dakota.

The new home is no mansion: At first the heat was irregular and the roof leaked. But some staffers say it's better than the months of sharing Manvel Public School with more than 200 students.

"As long as I have a computer, a little corner of privacy, I don't mind working where we are now," says City Hall reporter Liz Fedor. "We were going crazy in Manvel. People were sitting three inches away from you on either side. What we have now is pretty deluxe compared to what we had."

New production facilities, due to crank out papers in mid-March, will be west of the city to protect the pricey new presses from flooding.

Until then the Herald has tighter deadlines and a tighter product. It is printed at three separate locations and brought together in Grand Forks. Deadlines are earlier — the close is 50 minutes before the normal 11:20 p.m. for the late section; the other sections, printed an hour-and-a-half away in Fargo, close at 2 p.m.

"We're producing a cramped news product," says Maidenberg. "It's not what we would voluntarily do."

Scheduling people to meet two different deadlines is one of News Editor Jeff Beach's biggest challenges. Beach thinks normalcy is a long way away, and he longs for "a more settled routine." As he attempts to describe life in the Best newsroom amid background sounds of hammering, he concludes, "It's a lot noisier."

For some, the paper's loud but nearer to normal functioning is almost eerie. In fact, reporter Fedor says she wishes the Herald could recapture some of last spring's intensity. Covering the flood, she says, was "very satisfying."

Though much was lost in terms of buildings, equipment and clip files, the refurbishing promises to be an upgrade. All of the Herald's morgue will now be stored electronically, including as much of the past as it can rebuild. Maidenberg says the paper hopes to use microfilm copies of the paper, and from them manually key in copy.

The paper's next big challenge is to achieve record growth — to 40,000 — by the fourth quarter of 1998, he says. Given such a rough year, 1997's numbers are encouraging. Paid daily circulation through late November was 37,004, up 403 from 1996.

For now the Herald's single-floor makeshift operation is a daily reminder of the flood.

Yet even the many Herald staffers among those who lost their homes, Fedor says, are holding their own.