Among the evacuees from the flood on Tuesday was much of the staff of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Huddled in the back of newspaper delivery trucks they quickly relocated to a temporary newsroom in Baton Rouge. Brooke speaks with Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss about how exiled reporters are covering their hometown from afar.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Among the evacuees from the flood on Tuesday was much of the staff of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Huddled in the back of a newspaper delivery truck, they quickly relocated to a temporary newsroom in Baton Rouge. Jim Amoss is the editor of the Times-Picayune and he joins me now. Jim, welcome to the show.
JIM AMOSS: Thank you very much. It’s good to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So give me some of the nuts and bolts about how you’re doing your job, how you’re communicating with your reporters and how you’re communicating with your readers.
JIM AMOSS: The communication with the reporters is perhaps the most difficult because all the modern tools we've all come to rely on have broken down. It's no longer second nature to just pick up a cell phone because the cell phone won't connect. We've had to improvise but we've been publishing the newspaper without interruption on the Internet in PDF form, including on the day, Tuesday, the day after the storm when we trekked over six hours out of the torrents of New Orleans and through southwest Louisiana.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The newspaper that you've been publishing online includes at least partly a kind of a blog, doesn't it, consistently updated with short news pieces and dispatches from readers?
JIM AMOSS: Blogging is an absolutely essential part of this whole effort. And yeah, it informs the stories and we harvest from it for the stories, as well as from our own reporting. And it also is an important link to readers. And our readers are scattered in a huge arc across the south, having fled the city.
And one thing we're doing beginning tonight is putting out our first print edition in the hopes that we'll be able to reach many more people who haven't had access to the online version of the newspaper.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re talking about Thursday night. Will the biggest problem be getting it into the city?
JIM AMOSS: Well, distribution is going to be a gargantuan task, yes. And we will be distributing it in the parts of the city that are accessible to us, and also places to which we know our readers have evacuated - shelters, hotels. Baton Rouge has become a virtual New Orleans in exile. It’s - the population here has swelled hugely, and we know it’s our audience.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You said one of the biggest problems was communicating with your reporters. Do you find you lose touch with them from time to time? Do you, do you worry about where they might be?
JIM AMOSS: I worry, especially our, our reporters who've penetrated some of the really inaccessible parts of New Orleans and really cannot be reached. Today we heard from a reporter who had found his house and was using it as a base from which to report, and then heard reports that there were armed gangs roaming his neighborhood and his life was threatened. And we finally were able to get him to safety.
Another reporter was dispatched to the Gulf Coast to cover that side of the hurricane, and we have not heard from him yet. And we, we are terribly fearful as to what has happened to him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I can't imagine that there would have ever been a story where the reporters would be so much participants. Probably some of them are homeless. I wonder how that affects the reporting?
JIM AMOSS: Oh, I would say the majority of us are homeless. I mean, that, that’s almost the, the predicate condition of being here. I am surrounded by the most courageous journalists in America. And it’s utterly sustaining to be among them and to, to be working side by side with people who are committing fantastic journalism, even as they don't know what has happened in some cases to their own families - people who have lost everything.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are there elements of this story that you know that only the Times-Picayune can really cover because you know the city so well?
JIM AMOSS: Well, I think every day there are aspects of our reporting that could only spring from an intimate and long-standing knowledge of the city and all its idiosyncrasies and peculiarities. Inevitably the national media will be focused on the best-known tourist spots of New Orleans, the French Quarter. And that will blind you to what's happening in the rest of the city.
On the very afternoon of the storm I think we were the first to notice that the water was rising even after the storm had gotten quite out of our area. And we had two reporters return from their neighborhood. They had ridden to it on bikes and they had observed the torrents coming through where the canal had been.
And that was the beginning of the reports that the aftermath was worse than the storm itself and the real inundation was just beginning. And that is something that you couldn't have expected a national media to observe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What's the story that you've been trying to get all week that you just can't get at?
JIM AMOSS: There still are parts of the city that are just right now terra incognita to us. We just can't get to some parts. And the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I think, is a tale of disaster that has yet to be fully told. And we're, of course, always balancing our storytelling ability with our willingness to put our reporters and our photographers in great danger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you want people outside of New Orleans to know about your city that hasn't really been conveyed in the coverage so far?
JIM AMOSS: Well, I think inevitably the coverage focuses on the most spectacular observable events, and in the case of the past two days the most spectacular observable events have been the horrible looting and the lawlessness in the streets. And so I imagine that some people must have the impression that this represents New Orleans. I think it's important for the nation and the world to understand that this city is a great national and world treasure, inhabited by wonderful people who want to rebuild it and make it better than ever.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The story is how to rebuild the city, whether to rebuild the city, what to do with this unprecedented group of American refugees.
JIM AMOSS: Yeah. It's a, it's an experiment in, in reconstituting itself that will have to be invented hour by hour, day by day. And our task is to chronicle it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Once this immediate crisis passes, the national press will turn its attention elsewhere. But for you, for the Times-Picayune, this story's really just beginning, isn't it?
JIM AMOSS: This story is just beginning. It will preoccupy us deeply for quite a long while. And, and you’re right, long after the immediate national focus has shifted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jim, thank you so much.
JIM AMOSS: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jim Amoss is the editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.