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Newspaper Finds New Attitude After Katrina

Advocacy reporting is making an auspicious return in New Orleans, some observers say.

December 29, 2005|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — To New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose, the front porch gatherings felt like an extension of his work -- another way to talk with his neighbors about everything that had happened since Hurricane Katrina.

A collection of old and new friends arrived on the stoop of his Uptown home most nights following the storm. Their stories flowed, along with the cold bottles of Abita Amber, the local brew.

"Even the people who usually watched ESPN and 'Sex and the City' were flushed out of their houses," recalled the newspaperman, whose neighborhood escaped serious flooding. "We all sort of bonded together."

So it was with considerable pain that Rose recounted in his column this month how one of the regulars on his front stoop lost her fiance. He killed himself, apparently in despair over innumerable losses that the hurricane delivered.

"The most open, joyous, free-wheeling, celebratory city in the country is broken, hurting, down on its knees. Failing. Begging for help," Rose wrote. "Somebody turn this movie off; I don't want to watch it anymore. I want a slow news day. I want a no news day."

Four months after America's costliest disaster, Rose and his colleagues at the Times-Picayune have made their front porch the world's. They have become the definitive news outlet for myriad journalists trying to understand this city, and an essential read for its displaced and far-flung denizens.

Set against the cacophony of bickering local, state and federal officials, the 168-year-old newspaper's voice has been clearly heard.

The Times-Picayune exposed poorly constructed levees, picked apart obtuse FEMA policies, debunked overblown claims of evacuation center violence, and traveled as far as the Netherlands and Japan to show how other communities have coped with flooding and disaster.

The newspaper's success in the face of disaster raises a question: Are objectivity and dispassion in journalism overrated?

Some observers of New Orleans' daily newspaper say they are, and that the Times-Picayune's work in recent weeks evokes the best advocacy reporting of the Progressive Era a century ago, or even of the American Revolution.

"Objectivity is a fairly new construct in this business that has little to do with the quality of reporting," said Jay Perkins, a journalism professor at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. "Sometimes you need to tell people not only what is really going on but how it feels."

There may be those who are offended by the Times-Picayune's crusading tone, but they would be hard to find in New Orleans or elsewhere along the Gulf Coast. Clancy DuBos, editor of the New Orleans alternative weekly Gambit, said the catastrophe demanded a new approach.

"I think the traditional journalistic, arm's-length ... cold view of what's going on would be taken almost as an abandonment at this point," DuBos said. "I think the readers want us to be up on the rooftops and to shout. The Picayune has done an excellent job. They have done a real public service."

And so, one piece by Rose rants at a driver who tosses a handful of trash into an already waste-filled city. A column by the paper's feature editor, James O'Byrne, wonders how a federal government with "blood on its hands" from its failed levees could question the wisdom of rebuilding in his once lovely Lakeview neighborhood. "Why do they hate us?" the outdoor editor asks in another column, so palpable has the fear of being forsaken become. And a star investigative reporter tries to head off television's "60 Minutes" from reporting that New Orleans could be doomed to sink beneath the Gulf of Mexico.

Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss took the central message right to the federal government's doorstep last month, with an op-ed piece in the Washington Post. "We want word from Washington," said the New Orleans native, "that a great American city will not be left to die."

*

Founded by a pair of journalists in 1837 with $700 in gambling winnings, the Picayune took its name from how much it cost to buy a copy: a 6 1/4 -cent Spanish coin. In subsequent years, it became the first big-city paper to be run by a woman, and has had such illustrious writers as O. Henry and William Faulkner on its staff.

Today, the bulk of the Times-Picayune's staff of about 270 reporters and editors has returned to the headquarters off Interstate 10 that was abandoned to advancing floodwaters on Aug. 30. Many of them are natives and many more converts who say they wouldn't live or work anywhere but New Orleans.

"It's not a war of choice. It's a war of survival," said Douglas McCollam, a native and freelance writer based in Washington who spent more than a week reporting about the Times-Picayune after the disaster. "They clearly see it as the city fighting for its life. And they are going to respond accordingly."

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