The newspaper always gets out – Editorial Notebook

There is sad truth in the above work of Alberta cartoonist Patrick LaMontagne. Natural disasters this year have forced us into global awareness and charitable aid on a whole new level.

I was recently recounting to a friend some stories about newspapers in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Biloxi, Mississippi. Each managed to continue publishing during the horrific Hurricane Katrina, despite critical challenges and hardships.

Now that the southern states are into recovery mode and newspapers themselves are back in their usual publishing patterns – a months-long process – the details of internal newspaper struggles in the disaster have emerged.

During the hurricane, newspaper employees and their families were in jeopardy, various bureaus and offices were in the hurricane’s path and in flood zones, and most transportation and communication systems were down. Yet these newspaper folk still managed to overcome such hardships to get the news out, in print or on-line or both, I marvelled.

“Oh, newspapers always manage to get the paper out, no matter what is going on,” my friend nonchalantly observed.

I paused in my rhapsodic appreciation for these amazing newspaper colleagues. He was right – newspapers do seem to come through in times of disaster, simply because its employees know that a newspaper serves its readers best at exactly such times. People in the midst of life-changing disasters need reliable information as they may never have needed it before.

Dave Baker, a news designer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, spoke in a recent Society for News Design newsletter about work on “Catastrophic,” the working title for the paper’s first issue after the hurricane.

“The paper was stripped down to vital, raw information, what our readers desperately needed to know right then. And I hope that the ‘Catastrophic’ page will be remembered for that.”

The Times-Picayune offices had to be evacuated when New Orleans’ levies broke, and the paper continued to be published from Baton Rouge. Similarly, staff at Biloxi’s Sun Herald were evacuated to Columbus, Georgia, where they kept the paper going.

Before the evacuation, Sun Herald staffers slept on the floor and worked on the paper using little more than guts, generator power and satellite telephones.

May we never have to publish under such difficult circumstances. But if we ever do, I’m confident we’ll do the right thing by our readers. As Jared Head of the Sun Herald said, “when everything has crashed around people, getting a copy of the local newspaper brings a sense of normalcy. And that is the first step to recovery.”

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