Katrina Marked Turning Point for 'Times-Picayune' When Hurricane Katrina swept into New Orleans, accurate information was often the rarest commodity. As water inundated New Orleans, the city's dominant paper, The Times-Picayune, found its true calling.
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Katrina Marked Turning Point for 'Times-Picayune'

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Katrina Marked Turning Point for 'Times-Picayune'

Katrina Marked Turning Point for 'Times-Picayune'

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up: It's September 1st, crunch time in Major League Baseball.

But first, Hurricane Katrina brought floods and chaos into New Orleans two years ago this week. Amid the crisis, the news media sometimes had better information than government officials.

As NPR's David Folkenflik found in a recent visit, the city's dominant newspaper, the Times-Picayune, found its true calling as it weathered that storm.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Mark Schleifstein is showing me the sights in the middle-class Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans.

(Soundbite of cars)

FOLKENFLIK: A ruined house sits to the left, a vacant lot to the right. He gestures to the empty hull before us that used to be his home.

Mr. MARK SCHLEIFSTEIN (Reporter, The Times-Picayune): My wife sort of jokes about it. She says, you know, people ask her how much water was in your house and she says, we had 2 feet of water - on the second floor. And that's actually what happened.

FOLKENFLIK: This is Schlefstein's life, and this is his beat. He's a reporter for the Times-Picayune. Three years before Katrina, Schleifstein and his colleague John McQuaid warned in a front-page series that the big one would hit New Orleans one day, and it would submerge the city.

So as this storm approached on that Saturday in 2005, Schleifstein went to his temple and told his rabbi to put his Torah in safekeeping. Then he went to work, where he got a call from the federal government's top hurricane forecaster.

Mr. SCHLEIFSTEIN: He said, Mark, how high is your building? What kind of winds can it withstand? And I said, Max(ph), why are asking me these questions? And he said, you know why I'm asking you these questions. It's going to be a direct hit.

FOLKENFLIK: The storm hit Monday, and people initially thought New Orleans had ducked the big one. TV networks were filing upbeat stories from the scene at French Quarter. But by late afternoon, Times-Picayune staffers from top editors to the art critic started to call in. The neighborhoods were flooding.

By Tuesday morning, water was lapping at the paper's parking lot. A couple of hundred staffers and relatives were evacuated, but reporters were deployed throughout the region. The paper published continuously online and returned to the printed page after just four days.

Robert Thompson owns a coffee house in New Orleans. When he moved back after the storm, he didn't even have mail or telephone service. The Times-Picayune was invaluable.

Mr. ROBERT THOMPSON (Coffee House Owner): When we had a suburban friend come and bring us a paper to our coffee house, as a community of 20 to 30 people sitting around a coffee pot, we were kept going during that time, you know, snatching and grabbing at it.

FOLKENFLIK: More than FEMA, more than City Hall, the Times-Picayune delivered vital information where readers could get food, water, clothes, ice, where to find missing relatives.

Mr. THOMPSON: Back at one point, we had a mayor who said, don't believe any rumors unless you hear them from me. So you know, rumors drive a lot of the post-Katrina operations. It's the Picayune who can give us, you know, the facts.

FOLKENFLIK: The paper has printed stories about selflessness and success, but it's also chronicled the multiple failures by federal and local officials that led to the breaching of the levees. Over the Times-Picayune's newsroom, journalists will tell you Katrina was an act of man, not God.

Jim Amoss is the paper's editor in chief. He's a native of New Orleans and has worked here his entire life.

Mr. JIM AMOSS (Editor in Chief, The Times-Picayune): There's nothing abstract about this subject matter for me. It's the anger that I feel personally when I see a whole neighborhood languishing in muck because the federal money hasn't come through to help people rebuild.

FOLKENFLIK: The paper suffered along with its city. Reporters didn't live with their families for months. Marriages frayed. A photographer tried to take his own life. The paper started actually losing money as advertisers and readers vanished, and dozens of Times-Picayune journalists have picked up and left town for good.

For many journalists who stuck around, however, there's a clear mission: it's intense and local. When President Bush's top aide, Karl Rove resigned, it showed up on page nine. Page one was dominated by a local scandal and Katrina-related property tax hikes.

Editor Jim Amoss now has little patience left for reporting that delivers the perception of balance at the cost of understanding. His promise:

Mr. AMOSS: That we get to the point, that we call things as we see them and that we don't hesitate to zero in on problems and to criticize leaders when they fall short.

FOLKENFLIK: Everything in the paper has been rethought. Feature writer Renee Peck now writes a column called "This MOLD House." Her own home was flooded, and then hit by a tornado.

Ms. RENEE PECK (Feature Writer, "This MOLD House"): And my first assignment was a reentry story. What do you do when you're coming back after the flood? Do you need tetanus shots? Do you need hepatitis? What do you do if there are snakes in the water?

FOLKENFLIK: It all overwhelms Mark Schleifstein sometimes. And as the two of us drive near the infamous 17th Street levee, he chokes up as he talks about a city councilman's admission he took bribes. Schleifstein sees the same story everywhere.

Mr. SCHLEIFSTEIN: One of the things that's been ongoing in the background of Katrina has been that it's that government that got us to the point where we were before Katrina, where things were not working well.

(Soundbite of car)

FOLKENFLIK: At the Times-Picayune itself, things are picking up. It's finally making a profit again. Advertisers and readers have returned. Editor Jim Amoss has been given the green light to hire again. Schleifstein has been a reporter at the Times-Picayune 23 years and expects to stay.

Is this the story for the rest of your reporting career?

Mr. SCHLEIFSTEIN: Boy, it sure looks like it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHLEIFSTEIN: Yeah, it hasn't stopped.

FOLKENFLIK: Neither has the paper. It has become indispensable.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

SIMON: And you can hear more from Times-Picayune reporters and read some of their early coverage warnings, a danger from flooding, at our Web site, npr.org.

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