The flooded parking lot at the headquarters of the Times-Picayune.Foto: Sean Gardner / The Times Picayune
The reports Jim Amoss got from his staff at the Times-Picayune were "bad news" in the truest sense. No sooner had editor-in-chief Amoss bought a new pair of pants and a fresh t-shirt than a reporter stopped him at the office door. "I just went by your house," he said. "It got looted." For a moment Amoss looked astounded. Then he murmured, "I was afraid that might happen." His cell phone was in one hand; he'd just been discussing the next day's issue. He couldn't take time to worry about the house. There was a lead story to edit.
The new office feels strange to Amoss. It's sterile. His editorial staff's cubicles are lined up under fluorescent lights that throw a cold light on the editing. Meagre plywood walls have filled up only gradually with notes, photos and phone lists. At one end of the room Amoss has lined up his leading editors, and he sits in the middle, in his office. To the right, page one's been drawn up on a flip-chart.
For the journalists this room is what strange hotels or stadiums have become for the flood refugees: A kind of exile. Since last Tuesday, they've produced a newspaper from this rented business center in Baton Rouge, about 100 kilometers from New Orleans -- reporting, of course, on Katrina and her aftermath.
Disaster after the Warning
Amoss and his team held out until the last minute in downtown New Orleans. The Times-Picayune office, on Howard Avenue, about 1.5 kilometers from the Superdome, had been half-wrecked by the storm on Sunday night. The glass façade had split and the editors had barricaded themselves, as a precaution, in the core of the building. (Some editors brought their families, too.) The printing presses and a generator still functioned. The team was actually well-prepared: They intended to stay and report from their stronghold as well as they could.
Then two reporters happened to learn just how big the story would be. While TV networks broadcast warnings on Monday evening they rode bikes out to the Lakeview District and caught a first glimpse of the true disaster. The water stood two meters high in some places and was rising fast. They came back with a story that a levee had burst, and that parts of the city were about to drown.
This Times-Picayune scoop never made it to print. The flood rose fast around the editors; then the power went out. The presses quit. The reporters published their stories online, but that was all.
"We Only Bugged Out When Our Job Got Impossible"
It's a odd to hear yourself addressed with a Bremen accent in deepest Louisiana. But Amoss grew up in Germany on the North Sea; his American parents worked in the maritime industry. Rough storms were nothing new to him, which may be one reason he waited so long to leave the city. "It wasn't a matter of our safety," said the journalist, who's worked for almost 30 years for his hometown paper. "We only bugged out when our job got impossible." The escape was well-prepared, with 20 trucks waiting in front of the office. People took what they could and got in. Amoss posted a quick note on the Web site that the staff had to evacuate; then he left, too.
By now the water was already up to the trucks' radiators. Editors rode on flatbeds as the caravan hurried through water along the highway bridge on Interstate 10. Not even Amoss knew where they should go. Using a satellite phone he found which parts of the region his team could still cover; about 20 reporters had stayed downtown to research stories and take photos. The editors set up shop buildings not touched by the storm and flood while the Picayune men and women reported their news via satellite phone.
Last Wednesday's issue appeared despite of the exodus -- online. The skeleton crew produced 17 pages in Houma, about 30 minutes from New Orleans. Without software or any other special machines they improvised a headquarters and managed to publish an issue full of original stories, with only a single photo provided by news wires.
When Amoss takes a quick break in his office, he can't conceal his pride. "Everyone's stressed to the limit," he says. He doesn't show any stress; an almost youthful smile spreads across the 57-year-old editor's face. "I knew I had a good team. But finding out they were this good is one of the only worthwhile things to come out of this storm."
So far, an issue of the Times-Picayune has appeared every day. Some issues could only be read online, because a printer for the paper edition had to be found. The Web site became an online blockbuster; readers could print out the pages in PDF format Instead of the usual, pre-Katrina, 6 million hits per day, the servers now report an average daily count of about 30 million.
The site has also become a public forum for the sunken town: Readers can post information about missing friends and relatives and read information about every neighborhood. There's also a 24-hour chat room intended to re-connect people. The Times editors write round the clock about what's happening in the streets, as if the site were a blog. Meanwhile, employees have been handing out free copies of the printed edition.
All of New Orleans in One Editorial Staff
Amoss' staff mirrors the suffering of New Orleans in a microcosm: One of his reporters went missing for days. The staff mounted an intense investigation but couldn't find him.
As the situation downtown came to a head on Thursday, a Times photographer found himself fearing for his life. He tried to photograph a man lying in the street, apparently shot, when the police aimed their weapons at him. He and a Times reporter were forced back to their car and had their notebook and camera confiscated. The headline for the resulting story? "The City is not Safe for Anyone."
Every day the journalists ask themselves if they're observers or victims. "We're not sophisticated enough to control our emotions," said Amoss. Not that he's ever impolite: The head of a two-time Pulitzer-Prize-winning team never shows any signs of doubt, spleen or rage at the powers that be. Only in his op-eds can you sense what boils inside him. On Sunday, the paper's lead editorial triggered a worldwide scandal: All responsible authorities should resign, the paper wrote, including President Bush.
Later this week, Moss plans to drive to New Orleans himself for the first time since the paper's evacuation. His house probably stands a bit low on the to-do list: "I'll fill the trunk with beer and ice and drive it over to thank my employees." He'd like to rebuild an editorial office downtown as soon as possible. But he knows that won't happen overnight. He just signed a lease for the small apartment his family rented in Baton Rouge. "On paper it says three months," he says. "But we'll see."