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A paper presses on

Half a year after Katrina, the Times-Picayune has cultivated a new connection with readers, a tougher tone and a deeper purpose.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published March 6, 2006


NEW ORLEANS - Jim Amoss, editor of the Times-Picayune newspaper, answers the door at his spacious home already apologetic, cell phone plastered to his ear.

"Can you come by today?" Amoss says into the receiver. The topic at hand: roofing. And whether a contractor might show up to repair his.

"It's become a rule here: You could be meeting with anyone - the publisher of the newspaper - but if a contractor or an insurance agent or a FEMA person calls, you can leave the meeting," he says later, laughing. "You have to have your priorities."

Speaking to a reporter in early February, Amoss counted himself lucky to have a comfortably habitable home five months after Hurricane Katrina. The ruined hardwood floors were restored; the side door window broken by looters was covered by a small rectangle of plywood.

But a beige sedan, abandoned during the flood, still sat at the curb, two bags of groceries in the back seat. (City workers would finally remove it the following week.)

These are the daily reminders of Aug. 29, when the levees failed and the city began to flood.

Like many of their readers, Times-Picayune staffers endured a harrowing escape to Baton Rouge, momentarily suspending 169 years of continuous print publication.

Months later, a newspaper some thought might not survive is struggling mightily to complete its own comeback - living its own story of resurrection and documenting the fight to save its hometown.

"We're both covering the story and we are part of the story," Amoss said. "One of our roles that was thrust on us was to make sure the story is told as accurately as can be."

Amoss said the paper has lost about 35 news staffers from a newsroom of 270 people. Unofficial tallies peg Sunday and daily circulation numbers at about 200,000, compared with 257,000 daily and 284,000 Sunday pre-Katrina - though it is tough to know what may happen as subscriptions run out.

Regardless, publisher Ashton Phelps Jr. has pledged no layoffs in the newsroom, which he said has found a new connection with readers since the storm.

"The enthusiasm for the paper is unparalleled. ... I've never felt it in my 26 years running this paper," said Phelps, who wears a watch with a replica of the Spanish coin from which the newspaper got its name. "It's been our lifeline ... and a reaffirmation of the newspaper as a basic information source."

The paper's newfound scrappiness has not gone unnoticed. The staff just won a George Polk Award for metro reporting. Amoss was named Editor of the Year in January by the trade magazine Editor & Publisher . And there is widespread hope for a Pulitzer Prize.

"I don't think there's any member of my staff who wouldn't trade all of it to get our city back," Amoss said.

* * *

On Aug. 29, features editor James O'Byrne was bicycling near the 17th Street Canal, arts critic Doug McCash at his side. What they saw was jaw-dropping: Eight feet of water filled the neighborhood. He and McCash were the first journalists to realize that the levee had been breached.

O'Byrne's home was there, surely destroyed. But instead of trying to save it, O'Byrne and McCash finished reporting and headed for the newspaper's headquarters, where about 240 employees and their relatives had gathered to wait out the storm.

With floodwaters rising amid rumors of unrest at nearby Orleans Parish Prison, Phelps decided the next morning to evacuate, piling people into trucks normally used to haul newspapers.

Floodwaters rose to the top of the trucks' headlights, and no one knew whether the trucks would reach the highway - an oasis of elevated ground yards away. As the trucks touched dry road, staffers cheered.

"I don't think anybody has captured this feeling of utter queasiness you have when all your professional premises are taken away," Amoss said. "Recounting it now, it sounds like everything fell into place (logically). But it was the most unsettling, nauseating experience. The outcome wasn't assured, and most of us only had a vague sense of what to do next."

The convoy headed to Baton Rouge - an 80-mile journey that took seven hours - where the dean of Louisiana State University's journalism school, a friend of Amoss', had agreed to let staffers set up a temporary newsroom.

A team of about 16 reporters and editors already had returned to the city, hunkering down at colleagues' homes, and scavenging food and supplies from the Times-Picayune building.

"It was a hell of a lot easier to report and write from Baghdad than from Katrina," said Brian Thevenot, a former education reporter who had been embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq.

"I saw dead bodies here in ways I didn't in Iraq. And we were reduced to the Stone Age - pen and paper and telephone dictation for days."

Religion writer Bruce Nolan was forced by the tangled phone system to call from City Hall to his son in Virginia, who took dictation and called editors in Baton Rouge.

For three days, the Web site www.NOLA.com which had been founded as a separate company with an arm's-length relationship to the newspaper, became the Times-Picayune's sole voice - publishing the content as a .PDF image formatted like a print edition.

Two days after Katrina's impact, NOLA.com racked up 32-million page views, posting information on those trapped by floodwaters.

(Web site editor Jon Donley proudly recalls a Discovery Channel documentary showing a Coast Guard pilot holding a NOLA.com printout while searching for victims.)

Early coverage included a story about the corpse of a 5-year-old who was supposedly gang-raped and bodies stacked inside the Convention Center. Nearly three weeks later, Thevenot co-wrote the analysis that debunked those rumors.

Staffers began to settle into Baton Rouge - with a $350 clothing allowance for those who evacuated from the newsroom and a $60 per diem for everyone - amid assurances from owner Advance Publications that the newspaper would continue to publish.

(Ironically, a guarantee that employees would be paid until the end of October only fed rumors that the paper would shut down after then.)

But Phelps knew the newspaper must come back to its hometown soon, insisting on an Oct. 10 return to the Times-Picayune headquarters - despite no assurance that the telephones would even work. (They did.)

"Our publisher is an incredibly determined guy," Amoss said. "He saw it as a symbolic thing. He sort of willed it to happen."

* * *

When Mark Schleifstein opens his laptop, he is greeted by a picture of his former home sitting in 6 feet of floodwater.

Schleifstein is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter known as the newspaper's Cassandra for co-authoring the 2002 series "Washing Away," which predicted "flooding from even a moderate storm could kill thousands."

Now working on a book with "Washing Away" co-author John McQuaid, the quietly intense reporter has thrown himself into dissecting the issues raised in Katrina's wake.

"I drive through my neighborhood, and I don't say, "Oh my God,' anymore," said Schleifstein, who is moving into a new home with his wife after living in eight different places. "It's reality now. I'm numb to what New Orleans has become."

Features editor O'Byrne estimated that about a dozen staffers in his department had significant damage to their homes.

"There are a lot of shattered souls in this place. ... It's the invisible trauma," he said. "There are days when you want your old life back so bad, you can just taste it."

Katrina had already redefined life and work for Renee Peck, the Times-Picayune's home and garden editor, who struggled to rebuild her house by night while assembling stories by day on how to rid your home of mold and sell a flooded house.

Then, on Feb. 2, another blow: A tornado raked through the city and damaged significant portions of Peck's house only weeks before her family would move back in.

"I feel like I've aged 10 years in the last six months," she said. "But ... everything I'm going through is a learning experience for the newspaper."

Indeed, many Times-Picayune staffers have channeled their personal stories of tragedy into newspaper columns. Assistant city editor Rhonda Nabonne wrote about finding her home looted. Twice.

"I have to use all the experience I have to tell the world what we went through," she said. "This is where my power is. I don't have control over any insurance agents or anything, but I have power here."

Such sentiments make traditional notions of journalistic objectivity impossible, Amoss admitted.

"Everyone is so intimately connected to this story, we are supremely relevant to our readers. Readers have a sense the newspaper is going through the same experiences they are."

This may explain the tough tone the Times-Picayune has adopted since Katrina hit, from editorials excoriating Mayor Ray Nagin's plan to bring casinos into the city to star columnist Chris Rose's transformation into post-Katrina truth-teller.

"Frankly, they're much more like an alternative newspaper now, much more in your face," said Clancy DuBos, a former Times-Picayune staffer who edits the alternative newspaper, Gambit Weekly .

"They once had the attitude that it wasn't news unless the Times-Picayune printed it," he added. "But the paper's done a remarkable job since the storm. ... I just hope they can sustain it."

Picking through a ruined neighborhood near the 17th Street Canal that housed the Montessori school she ran for 40 years, Maryke Albers pulled an out-of-town reporter aside to praise the post-Katrina Times-Picayune .

"It's the only way to know what's really happening here," said Albers, pointing to a spot near the still-leaking canal levee, where floodwaters pushed a neighbor's home into the middle of the street. "Somebody has to tell our story."

* * *

Features staffer Suzanne Stouse handles her wheelbarrow with the enthusiasm of a cheerleader on a crisp February morning, beaming in a T-shirt bearing the Times-Picayune logo and the motto: "We publish, come hell or high water."

Stouse is working in the home of Charlotte Jackson, a staffer in the paper's advertising department.

Copper-colored lines of sediment mark the front walls about 7 feet off the ground - graphic evidence of floodwaters that trashed the home where she raised four children over 23 years.

Hiring a crew to gut the home could have cost Jackson up to $4,000. But Stouse and about two dozen Times-Picayune staffers are doing the work themselves in a volunteer effort they call "Each One, Gut One."

"There's (a little) survivor's guilt involved, but mostly we just want to help," said Stouse. "You live here, and you still discover vast pieces of this no man's land where everything is dead, dead, dead."

Clad in old clothes, hats and face masks, the crew carts out wheelbarrow loads of rubble, ruined furniture and appliances.

"It looks like the house threw up on the curb," someone says.

Within 90 minutes, the work is done. Volunteers hug and high-five each other before heading to the next home, or other obligations.

"The only thing I'm on time for these days is the guttings," said Gwen Filosa, a 35-year-old spark plug of a reporter now covering the 9th Ward. "This work is way too important to miss."

Glancing at her watch, Filosa heads for home and a change of clothes. She's got a reporting shift starting in an hour.

--Eric Deggans can be reached at 727 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media/