Newspaper staffs battle hurricane

Jan 2, 2013

By Sky Chadde
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
When David Nahan, editor at the Ocean (NJ) City Sentinel, and his staff got down to putting a paper together for the first week of November, they did so at two dinner tables—in the Sentinel’s business manager’s parents’ house.
The staff of the Sentinel had been forced out of their newsroom by rising water from Hurricane Sandy. The office, which was three blocks from Great Egg Harbor Bay, still has not completely dried out nearly two months after the storm. Even though it was 40 inches off the ground, Nahan said, the newsroom floor was covered with 4 inches of water because of title surges from the hurricane.
The Sentinel wasn’t the only newspaper to face the storm’s wrath. Employees of the Hudson Reporter in Hoboken, NJ, relocated to the maternity ward in the Palisades Medical Center, because their newsroom had lost power and Internet access.
Reporters at the New Jersey Herald in Sussex County, NJ, worked out of a Dunkin’ Donuts 20 miles away from their newsroom, sending stories and pictures in by e-mail to get the paper out the day of the storm.
With intermittent power and tons of debris all around them, staffs continued to work on their papers and report about the storm. In doing so, the reporters and photographers in New Jersey communities brought much-needed information to their readers in the face of Hurricane Sandy.
“Houses were uprooted, boardwalks were torn apart and roller coasters were thrown out into the sea,” said Martin Gottlieb, editor of The Record, a paper in Woodland Park, NJ, about the Jersey Shore. “This is an area that may not be the south, south-Atlantic seaboard or Florida, but it’s sustained its share of hurricanes and snow storms that have been pretty devastating—but nothing ever quite like this.”
“The contents of numerous houses were out in the street waiting to be picked up as garbage—drywall, furniture, carpet, you name it,” said David Unger, editor at the Reporter. “It’s all out there.”
Reporting in these conditions was challenging for newspaper staffs. When the storm hit, though, employees of community newspapers continued to work to report the news and make it available to readers.
“Newspapers and news organizations and news websites always get an extra dose of adrenaline that keeps them running during times like this,” Gottlieb said.
But challenges certainly existed to getting the paper out to its readers, and getting that paper out was certainly important for the newspaper staffs.
“This was seat-of-your-pants time; this was guerrilla newspapering,” Unger said. “We had no plan.”
Only some did have a plan. Kathy Stevens, news editor at the New Jersey Herald, said, despite not having power after the storm, employees were still able to put the paper together because of the mobile newsroom system the paper put in place last year. In this system, reporters had laptops and phones with access to the Internet.
At the Sentinel, in case of a storm, backups for the paper existed at individual homes off the island.
“We operated even right through the storm,” he said.
Knowing the storm was coming, Gottlieb sent home nonessential employees. During the storm, he said things went about as well as expected.
“In the newsroom, it was just a stellar performance,” Gottlieb said. “It confirmed that this newsroom was prepared to handle an event like this.”
The effort of newspaper staffs prompted positive feedback from the communities they covered.
“We got many comments about how pleasantly surprised people were to get the paper and see what was going on,” Unger said. “It was very well received.”
Learning from Hurricane Irene, which made landfall in August 2011, the Herald knew to keep in touch with all emergency management coordinators. Because of this, the paper was able to update its community on where the power outages were, who was serving free meals and where shelters were located, Stevens said.
The Record ran stories on how to run generators, how to keep children occupied at home and how to preserve food if the refrigerator lost power, Gottlieb said. It also ran reports on the canceled high school games and on the professional teams in the area.
“(There was) spectacular photography and great journalism that filled up every section of the paper,” Gottlieb said.
To its regular spread of 24 pages, the Sentinel, which published a day late because of the storm, added four pages of storm photos from its staff and from readers who had stayed during the storm.
“Even though a lot of the stores that sell our newspaper were flooded and closed,” Nahan said, “we sold out to a lot of places (that were open) because people were actually looking for information about the storm.”
Although the staffs worked hard to bring information to the community, they suffered losses just like the ones they covered.
An apartment of one of the reporters at the Sentinel flooded, Nahan said. Also, flooding from Hurricane Sandy destroyed the first floor of the house of one of the front office employees at the paper.
A Herald reporter was on his way home the night of the storm, when wind knocked down a tree, hitting his car. He had to go to the hospital with minor injuries, Stevens said.
In Woodland Park, which is about 20 miles from Manhattan, Gottlieb and about 20 other staff members slept at the newsroom the night of the storm. It was too terrifying to leave, he said.
“I remember being down in the cafeteria, which opens out into a parking lot, and just having the doors of the cafeteria pounded by the wind and the rain,” Gottlieb said. “They had to be shored up by furniture on the inside just to keep them closed. And as (the storm) battered the building, people hunkered in on couches and chairs and floors in the night.”
Because of this distress to newspaper staffs in the state, and the amount of damage to many newsrooms, the New Jersey Press Association and the New Jersey Press Foundation set up a relief fund.
In a press release, Jennifer C. Chciuk, NJPA’s president, said the organization is in a good position to assist its members during this time.
Currently, the fund is about $12,000, John J. O’Brien, foundation director, said. The money came from donations from publishers and other state newspaper associations. Many states that were also struck by tragedy in recent years, such as the southern states and Missouri, have been generous, O’Brien said. NNA donated $1,000 to the fund.
Members can apply for part of the money with the foundation, and a board will determine where it will be allocated.
“Some will need more than others,” O’Brien said.
Employees at the Reporter moved back into their newsroom Nov. 5, the Monday following the storm.
“We’re fine, our building is fine, and our employees are fine,” Unger said. “Our customers have suffered.”
On the other hand, the Sentinel lost its newsroom in the storm, but the staff has settled into its new home, two blocks away, on the third floor of a six-story office building. They are continuing to report, just like the other papers affected by Hurricane Sandy.
“Ocean City was founded in 1879 and the newspaper, or its precursor, was started in 1880,” Nahan said, “so this newspaper’s been watching over the shores for more than 130 years. It’s been through hurricanes before.”