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Extreme Journalism

Journalists are the original ambulance chasers: bad news is their bread and butter. But what do they do when the bad news happens at home?


What keeps journalists going at the worst of times?

Two Yale alumni, Jim Amoss ’69 and Paul Steiger ’64, head newspapers that won Pulitzers for their coverage of disasters that destroyed their own headquarters. Amoss is editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the paper that told the world that Hurricane Katrina had breached the city’s levees; he and publisher Ashton Phelps Jr. ’67 evacuated their staff the day after the hurricane hit. Steiger is editor of the Wall Street Journal’s news operations (and a board member of the nonprofit that publishes this magazine). The Journal’s offices, across the street from the World Trade Center, were devastated on 9/11, yet the staff produced a newspaper for the morning of September 12, 2001.

Jake Halpern ’97, author of Braving Home and Fame Junkies, interviewed Steiger and Amoss to find out what keeps journalists going at the worst of times.



Y: What was the mood like as the storm approached?

Jim Amoss: It first comes onto our radar on Friday, August 26. All predictions at that point were that the storm would hit the Florida panhandle. I was talking casually with our hurricane reporter about the uneventful weekend ahead, and he looked at me and said, “What do you mean?“ Then he took me over to his computer and showed me the new storm prediction, which now included New Orleans.

The most we imagined was just a bad wind storm—we hunker down, and then we go home in a few days and clean up our city—because that was the worst that any of us had experienced. It wasn’t until Saturday afternoon that people started seriously worrying about homes, family, and evacuation. Around 1 a.m. on Sunday my son and my wife loaded up two cars with every precious belonging we could save.

I went to the Times-Picayune, which is a strong, fortified building, and bunked down with about 200 colleagues and relatives of colleagues. We had some very small children and some old people. The winds started picking up around midnight. By 2 a.m. the winds were howling. Shortly after that, we lost power. You could only hear this ungodly sound of the wind. At about 3 or 4 in the morning there was a large crashing sound. A huge glass window, floor to ceiling, had smashed in and blown across an office. The storm kept intensifying through Monday. We spent much of that morning looking through the atrium at what was happening. We watched the wind blow roofs off.

Y: Were you reporting what was going on outside?

A: At this point, we had people blogging. We had set up a row of computers powered by generators, and the Internet lines were working. Very early on, some of the bravest of our photographers and reporters were going and blogging back to us what they were seeing. Around 10:30 a.m. on Monday, a couple of photographers got in their SUVs to go to the eastern part of the city, and already they saw utter devastation—a torrent of water. But we thought the core of the old city was more or less intact. In the late afternoon we were debating how we would frame this story, and the consensus waS: the loss of the eastern part of the city, but the relative survival of the city as a whole.

Y: When people went out to report, were they asking you for permission?

A: People were taking their own risks without asking permission. That is just very much the nature of journalists. Also, everybody knows that in a hurricane you have to be very aggressive to report well. Two of our people were the first to find out the other side of the story, which nobody—including the national media—yet knew: what was about to happen to New Orleans.

James O’Byrne, our features editor, and art critic Doug MacCash—an unlikely pair—ventured out on bicycles, some time around 12:30 or 1:00 p.m. on Monday, to see what had happened in the north. They started pedaling and soon discovered water on the streets. They took to an elevated railroad track. And when they came to a bridge that crosses one of the major roads, Canal Boulevard, they found that the boulevard had become a river rushing from Lake Pontchartrain southward to downtown New Orleans. And it dawns on them that something devastating has happened near the lake. They concluded that there had been a levee breach.

They got closer to the lake to ascertain what had happened, and they spent six or seven hours on bike. Even though James knew he had lost his house, the only thing he thought was, “We have to get this story back to the paper.” By the time they finished investigating it was dark. They had to grope their way back, fording streams. They burst into our editorial meeting at about 9:30, caked with mud, and told us that the city was about to completely go under.

That night we put that information on the web. We knew that most major national media were oblivious to what was happening. They were standing in the French Quarter talking about how the city had dodged a bullet. It was so important to get out the real story.

Y: Were you able to do anything for your own security?

A: We went to bed that night broadcasting this horrific news but not realizing what it meant to us personally. I woke the next morning and it was this beautiful, still day. We went to the front doorstep of the newspaper and realized that the water had risen three feet overnight. It was rising about an inch every six minutes. We had these very high-riding diesel delivery trucks, about a dozen of them—the water was already deep on them. Our only chance was to evacuate people in the trucks. Around 9:45 a.m. the publisher and a bunch of editors and I ran through the building screaming at people to get to the loading dock—we just herded people into the backs of these trucks.


The Times-Picayune Today

“The story of New Orleans is unfinished. It is an all-consuming story that eats us up every day. Everything that befalls us as individuals is in some way the kernel of a story, because we know that it’s almost inevitably part of some larger pattern. If the catch basin in front of my house is clogged up during a heavy rainstorm, I know that there’s probably a major problem with the pumping system that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. If I’m waking up every morning at three, it’s probably valid to generalize that there’s insomnia in the community. When you get to the journalism part of it, I do think that you need to find some way to be dispassionate about it—to understand that the task is more important than your own personal experience. And then it becomes a habit to channel your hope and your despair in a way that makes journalistic sense. But there’s nothing that bonds you more with readers than their feeling that you fully understand their story because you’re living it yourself.”

As soon as a truck was filled it would leave the parking lot and head down a service road that runs parallel to the interstate. The interstate was on a higher grade than our service road, and it was dry. But to get there you had to go about a mile down the service road to an exit ramp. The service road had about three feet of water, and little electronic messages were flashing on the dashboard—“Water in the fuel.” I had no idea whether we were going to make it. And we had all these old people and children. About a mile down there was a pickup truck stalled in the middle of the service road, so we had to go around it, which meant entering even deeper water. That was the crisis moment. Once we got past that I could see the service truck ahead of us gaining the interstate, and those of us behind were cheering. Amazingly, we all made it onto the interstate.

Y: Where did you set up your new offices?

A: We regrouped in the first dry place we could stop—our suburban bureau on the other side of the Mississippi. Then some of us set up in Houma with a local newspaper that let us use their press. The most important decision we made was that a group of us, reporters and photographers, had to go back into the city and set up a base to report from—not knowing where they would find shelter or how we would be able to communicate. Almost immediately a group of about 15 people volunteered. It was a completely eclectic and in some ways improbable group, including the editorial page editor, the art critic, and the popular-music critic. The person in charge was the sports editor, David Meeks, who is now our city editor. He took this team and brought them across the river. They set up at the editorial editor’s house.

We published fully paginated newspapers on the Internet Monday through Wednesday. On Thursday night, we were back in print.

Y: We read about so much that didn’t work in New Orleans. What was it that made the paper work?

A: We have a pretty remarkable team, full of people who are smart and nimble and take matters into their own hands. James O’Byrne, deciding that it doesn’t matter that it is dark or flooding—he has to get this story told. Or Meeks, mobilizing this group to go back into the city, not knowing what they would encounter.

As journalists, we are hardwired to do this. The rhythm of constantly feeding this beast and putting out this newspaper is innate. Also, we believed, and the evidence was considerable, that we were a lifeline to our readers. We were the sole provider of the news they really needed—where to get assistance, what had happened in their neighborhood. It was also great therapy to think about this mission instead of thinking about all the horrible things that were going on in our lives. Here we were, stuck in Baton Rouge, with all our family members scattered around the nation, no way of finding out what had happened to our own house or our own block. To be able to focus on putting out the news was a psychological savior for us.



Y: What were you doing when the planes hit the World Trade Center?

Paul Steiger: I was sitting at my desk when I got a call from my wife, who was working at Lehman Brothers. She said, “Did you hear that?” And I said, “Hear what?” And she said, “You better go look out one of the windows.” So I go and see that there is smoke pouring out of the towers. I couldn’t see exactly what had happened, but one thing that was clear was that it was not an accident.

Also here early that morning was a guy named Jim Pensiero, then administrative deputy. He had led the team that installed the computer system we used to produce the paper. I asked Jim, “If we have to put out a paper from South Brunswick [New Jersey, where the Journal has a large campus], could we do it?” He thought we could. I wasn’t watching out the window when I heard whoosh, and the second plane hit.


The Journal Today

“From my office today, when you look outside [to the west], the world hasn’t changed at all. But when you walk to the other side you are looking at a hole.

When I walked over, I looked up the street and it was more flame than smoke. The sight that I will never forget is seeing falling specks and then realizing that those were falling human beings.

Y: When did you decide to send staff to New Jersey?

S: One thing that no newspaper person wants to have happen on his watch is to not publish a paper. When the second plane hit, what we worked out was that Jim would get on the ferry [to cross the Hudson] and make his way to South Brunswick. He made some phone calls to folks there to free up some computers so that we could have a newsroom. Meanwhile, I would try to find some editors and get them across the river. In order to put out a paper you need a critical mass of editors.

Y: So you and the Journal staff evacuate the building?

S: Yes. People were milling around outside. And then you hear this rumble and the first tower just starts to fold like a deck of cards. There is this terrible noise. And then all of us are immersed in this cloud of ash. I remember saying to myself several times, just to keep calm, “People do not die of smoke inhalation in the open air.” And people were really very good. Everyone talks about how selfish New Yorkers are, but in a crisis, this was not so. Folks were helping the nannies with strollers. We were all trying to escape this cloud.


“It took us a year to get back into our building. In the meantime, Danny Pearl was kidnapped and murdered. And we had an anthrax scare—not that there was any anthrax ever found in any of our locations. A lot of folks were worried about coming back to this building—thinking that downtown Manhattan would be a ghost town, that it would be dangerous. All that stuff has not come to pass. But it made me more aware of the risks to journalists. If you’re not safe in Lower Manhattan, where are you safe? It’s one of the things that made me more prepared to commit time to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which I’m chair of now.

What I didn’t know at the time was that same dust cloud that came with such force actually blew out all the windows of our building, and the offices were all filled with this choking ash. Miraculously, we didn’t lose anyone, though we didn’t know that for a few days.

After the second tower collapsed there was a second wave of dust. When the second cloud cleared they were running buses up the East Side to evacuate people. I live at 86th and 1st, and this bus stopped right at my door. So I get out of the bus, and I am wearing my best blue suit, but I am covered in white ash, head to toe. And this is New York, so nobody makes eye contact. It is surreal.

Y: What happened next?

S: I got upstairs and got a message that my wife was all right. I called my then-senior deputy, Barney Calame, at his apartment, and I say, “Hey, this is Paul.” And he starts to cry. He thought I was dead. I said, “I’m fine, I evacuated, and we’ve got to get a paper out.”

The first thought was that we might be able to get to South Brunswick. But Barney had a great computer setup at his apartment on the West Side, and most of the senior editors live on the West Side. So I said, “Why don’t you get the people that you can, and I’ll try to get a cab across [Central] Park and meet you there.” There were six or seven of us. I had already called the Washington bureau chief and said, “You guys are going to have to handle a lot of the rewrite.”

What I am told when I get to Barney’s is that we have reporters who are doing the right thing—finding out stuff and filing, either by phone or with their laptops, and sending it to the main copy desk. We would have a main news story, a color piece, a security system story, an economy story, and a sort of looking-forward international relations piece. I was amazed that there was so much reporting.

I wanted a six-column hed [headline] on this package. The last time the Journal had done a six-column hed was Pearl Harbor.

Y: So it all just came together?


“But the hole is still there. The first few weeks that I was back in the building, I didn’t want to look out of the window on that side. Now, when I see movies that were shot before 2001 and they pan the New York skyline, it’s kind of a tear at my heart when the towers are there. They were part of the landscape of my life and the way that they were destroyed is painful to this day.”

S: The amazing thing is that no one told the reporters what to do. They just did it. That shows the powerful culture of this place. When you are in the middle of it, you are so focused: we are going to get out a paper. It’s kind of like you hit a ball and run like hell to get to first base. You don’t stop and think.

The tech folks were fabulous. They said they’d have a fully functioning newsroom in South Brunswick. One of the tech guys rented a truck and drove to central Pennsylvania, where he picked up something like 50 computers and drove all through the night so he could have them there the next day. By 9:30 a.m. there was a place for everyone to go.

Y: What was the proudest moment?

S: Seeing that paper on the morning of September 12 and getting calls and e-mails from people around the world who said: “When the paper showed up at my driveway, I felt that all is not lost.” It makes you feel you are doing something that is meaningful



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