Jim Amoss and his staff of the New Orleans Times-Picayune faced one of the greatest hardships in the history of journalism after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city in 2005. But along the way, they also discovered the important role of their paper in a community that struggles to rebuild. We caught up with Amoss to measure the temperature of life in The Big Easy.
Q: It’s been 18 months since Katrina. How are things in New Orleans, and how are things at the paper?
So much is in the eye of beholder that it’s almost impossible to give an empirical answer. We’re on a constant emotional roller coaster — one day encouraged by what we see and plunging into despair the next. It’s a very difficult, tedious, time-consuming process to put together a totally broken American city.
The devastation is so incomprehensibly vast. An economy and urban fabric are difficult to put back together, and there’s nothing commensurate in recent American history to which we can look as a model. That’s not to excuse some staggering ineptitude on the federal, state and local levels. All that incompetence and lack of direction and political infighting can overwhelm.
But then we have some unbelievably determined, forceful, indefatigable citizens, and their perseverance is something to behold. We New Orleanians were never like that. We let all the drudgery slide and paid a big price for it. There are amazing things happening in education — the whole school system being revamped — and there are legions of experts in drainage and levy reconstruction working incredibly hard.
We live this story the same as people we’re covering, and everybody in my newsroom has some story to tell and some hardship they are still living through. It seems not to end.
Q: How is your staff morale?
We’re plodding forward. (Staff writer) Coleman Warner has been living in a FEMA trailer with his wife and high-school-age daughter and dog. Everything is 10 times slower than you would think in terms of rebuilding homes. Everybody has a different ability to cope.
There are some who said, “I can’t do this anymore” and left. I don’t blame them. Others you meet and have no idea of the turmoil in their lives because they are so serene. To me that’s more heroic journalistically than in the aftermath of storm.
The adrenaline (of the storm and its aftermath) is long gone. We have a policy here: No matter what sort of high-level meeting you are in, if you get a call from a roofer, plumber or contractor, you take that call and make sure they are doing the job right.
In a way we have a built-in support system. You’re not going through a breakdown by yourself. There’s a natural support group built into any crisis. News people are stoic about these things sometimes and don’t share. Part of an editor’s job is to look people in the eye and say, “How are you really? Is everything OK?”
Q: What lessons did you learn in the struggle to put out the paper under such dire circumstances?
I learned in a visceral way just how vital newspapers are to communities. Maybe that notion would not be so big 20 years ago, but it’s a lesson being driven home daily to us. Newspapers are, in so many ways, the glue that binds communities together.
We’re (New Orleanians) a strange case and part of this one big ongoing post-traumatic stress disorder partaking collectively of a great big therapy session. We’re (the newspaper) not the therapist, but the moderator and facilitator for many different conversations.
Some are quite dry, such as the appropriate model for levy reconstruction; others are quite squishy, such as (columnist) Chris Rose’s descent into depression and how he overcame it. Physicians told him he saved lives with this piece. Yet both are important.
Q: Did you discover new ideas about the newspaper’s role in the community? How has that view translated into your daily coverage?
If you go into any coffee shop, you see the paper being devoured. I’ve discovered we shouldn’t be afraid of our voice as individual writers and as a newspaper. When we have something to say, we need to speak in a distinctive, urgent way, and people will respond.
The role of the newspaper to spark community conversation cannot be undermined. Here we’ve used the newspaper online extensively to get reaction to proposals, get feedback and bring groups together.
Q: What attracted you to journalism? Where did you get your journalistic experience? What keeps you engaged?
What attracted me was I fancied myself a writer. I needed to earn a living and thought I’ll try this. I was not all that curious about my hometown (New Orleans) and was surprised by many things.
I started out at the afternoon paper here in New Orleans writing a combination of breaking news stories, accidents, fires and eventually specializing in investigations (with Dean Baquet, newly minted Washington bureau chief for The New York Times). I was a shy person, and I hesitated to go into this profession because I thought you can’t be shy, you have to be outgoing and muscle your way into situations. I discovered that whether you’re shy or outgoing is not the measure of a good reporter. Rather, I gave curiosity free reign to drive and energize, and that’s what propelled me as reporter: wanting to find out things. Wanting to get it right.
What keeps me engaged is covering such an amazingly multidimensional community with a staff that’s such an amazing team.
Q: Tell me about the Pulitzer experience. The paper has earned several under your leadership.
It’s extremely gratifying, especially when you win for something that was a team effort. And twice we’ve received the public service medal given to the whole newspaper. The way that energizes people and validates what they’ve done is something to behold.
The last one for Katrina coverage went well beyond the newsroom and became a source of pride for everyone from production to circulation to advertising, the machinery that moves this company forward and produces this newspaper. (Katrina coverage) was very much a companywide effort. We passed the medal around and let groups of employees take pictures with this gold medal. We had pressmen, ad reps, clerks all take part.
Q: What is it about your leadership style that allows such enterprising reporting to occur?
We really value and take great care in the hiring process of this newspaper. The degree to which we talk to prospects and references and have them here for several days allows them to get to know and be known by all levels of editors, and that helps us create a great team. It’s not just about journalistic excellence but also about people who work together.
Aside from that, everybody who is a supervisor here believes the best results come from letting people achieve and reach full potential and not putting them into a straight jacket.
Q: How is the paper in terms of operation and staffing?
We lost and did not regain a number of staff. Before Katrina we had 265 full-time equivalents and went down to about 228-230 after the storm. For now that’s where we’re going to be. We didn’t lay off anyone after the storm but experienced gradual attrition. Beginning last June we were able to start rehiring as we lost people.
We’re a viable business again. As an advertising medium we’re very effective in this community. We’ve learned that if you’re able to open your business and find workers, you’re doing well. I sound like the publisher, but all of us in the newsroom are more acutely aware of the newspaper as a business as we stared out at the abyss.
Q: Where do you find the inspiration to push on?
Both personally and professionally, I feel caught up in the plot of some very long novel. I want to see where it goes and be part of the outcome. It feels very unnatural to break away from that.
I love the city with every fiber of my being. I was born here, and my parents are still here. I want to be part of recovery. Every journalist owes it to himself or herself to see (the city) again. It’s not as glum and depressing as The New York Times would have you believe. And it’s fascinating how it’s happening.
Certainly the Saints provided us with a transcendent experience that went beyond sports.
Q: Is there a better newspaper name than the Times-Picayune?