Florence does not stop community paper

Oct 5, 2018

By Stanley Schwartz
Managing Editor | Publishers’ Auxiliary
WHITEVILLE, NC—The historic hurricane that battered North Carolina in September showed what community newspapers could do in the face of adversity.
At the family-owned Whiteville News Reporter, Publisher Les High and his staff went through extraordinary lengths to make sure the semi-weekly paper got out on time.
“We lost power early on,” High said. A temporary berm set up by the local energy company around the town’s electrical substation was quickly overwhelmed by the heavy rains. “They told us to expect 27 inches, and that’s what we got.”
High and his staff prepared as much as they could as Hurricane Florence slowly approached the North Carolina coast. At one point, it was a category four storm with winds in excess of 140 mph.
“There was high confidence it would hit us,” High said. Normally, hurricanes coming in from the Atlantic roll up the coast. “This one T-boned us. It slammed into Wilmington on the coast and then rolled over us.” By that time, Florence had been downgraded to a category one storm, but it was extremely slow moving. High estimated that most hurricanes go through in six to eight hours. Florence took three days to pass.
They faced a similar storm two years ago when Hurricane Matthew hit North Carolina. The News-Reporter covers Whiteville in the heart of Columbus County.
“We’re the third largest county in the state and very rural—with a population of about 50,000,” he said.
They put out their Friday, Sept. 14 paper before the storm. Three rivers run through the county, and because of all the rain, roads became flooded.
“This county is mostly low-lying area and it floods easily,” High added.
Once the power went out, they shifted operations to the local hospital. It was the only building with electricity and internet. Even the Emergency Operations Center lost power, internet and cell service.
“We set up our newsroom in the hospital lobby,” High added. They decided to do live reporting using their iPhones and posting to Facebook and their website.
The new editor High hired six weeks before, Justin Smith, stood in knee-deep water in downtown Whiteville, reporting on the rising water.
“Normally, our video reports get 2,000 to 10,000 views,” High said. Smith’s first video received 226,000 views. A video submitted from a local citizen of a Coast Guard helicopter trying to take off in the storm received more than 775,000 views.
“They landed to pick up two patients who needed critical care and would have died without it,” High said. The helicopter tried to take off once and had to set back down because of the high winds and rain before attempting a second take off. This one was successful.
High and his staff learned the importance of live reporting during a natural disaster. They tried reporting from the hospital lobby, but the rain was so loud it nearly drowned out their audio. They switched to an interior conference room and continued to report.
High praised his staff for their perseverance in covering the storm and its aftermath. The News Reporter was established in 1890, and has been in High’s family since 1938. It was the first community newspaper with the Tabor City Tribune to win a Pulizter Prize for public service reporting.
“That was in the early 1950s when my grandfather was running the paper,” High said. The semi-weekly did a lot of reporting on the Ku Klux Klan.
High did his own Facebook live report to let residents know the paper would come out on Monday, Sept. 17. Even though power was out across the county, High said many people were using their cars to keep their phones charged so they could follow the news.
“We got a lot of good feedback on our live reporting,” High said. “People were thankful for our coverage. We were the only ones covering Whiteville.”
The company’s commercial print operation was down, so High relied on the Fayetteville Observer’s printing plant to print the Tuesday paper.
High credits the printing crew at the Fayetteville operation with making sure his paper did not miss a publication day.
“They were able to squeeze us in between everything else they were doing,” he said. But getting the printed product back to Whiteville for distribution was an issue. They had to wait for word from the state Transportation Department before attempting to drive to Fayetteville.
By Monday, the storm had dissipated enough to allow the staff to move out of the hospital. The N-R office was still without power, so they moved to High’s house and set up the newsroom in his kitchen. High’s wife, Becky, also works at the paper, but had to evacuate her parents out of Wilmington ahead of the storm.
High said he and his staff survived on a big pot of vegetable soup Becky had made before the storm, plus Ritz crackers, peanut butter and Goldfish, and of course, lots of coffee.
High said he believes it was important for him and his staff to continue their live reports and get the paper printed on time.
“Even if the town was underwater,” he said, “it was a moral imperative to bring some normality into their lives.”
Other newspapers across the state reported similar efforts to keep the news flowing. In a blog post by John L. Robinson, the former editor of the Greensboro (NC) News & Record, he showed the staggering hurricane coverage by newspapers across the state. His post can be found at:http://johnlrobinson.com/2018/09/sunday-sampler-hurricane-florence-edition/