wa·ter·shed n. 1. A ridge of high land dividing two areas that are drained by different river systems. 2. A critical point that marks a division or a change of course; a turning point. (American Heritage Dictionary)
As the water finally starts to recede in New Orleans, the watershed for online journalism has been laid bare. Hurricane Katrina brought forth a mature, multi-layered online response that built on the sense of community after 9/11, the amateur video of the Southeast Asian tsunami disaster and July 7 London bombings, and the on-the-scene blogging of the Iraq War.
I spent one entire afternoon glued to my computer, reading The Interdictor blog, written by DirectNIC crisis manager Michael Barnett about survival in a downtown high-rise in New Orleans. But no one could touch the incredible journalism done by the staffs of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, its online counterpart NOLA.com, and Advance Internet (the corporate head of NOLA.com).
NOLA.com is known more for its MardiGras.com site and its live webcam, but now has become Exhibit A in the importance of the Internet for newspaper companies during a disaster. When the newspaper couldn’t possibly be printed or distributed, the NOLA.com news blog became the source for news on hurricane damage and recovery efforts — including updates from various reporters on the ground and even full columns and news stories.
The blog actually became the paper, and it had to, because the newspaper’s readership was in diaspora, spread around the country in shelters and homes of families and friends. The newspaper staff was transformed into citizen journalists, with arts reviewers doing disaster coverage and personal stories running alongside hard-hitting journalism. In a time of tragedy and loss, the raw guts of a news organization were exposed for us to see.
And it wasn’t just about newsgathering. NOLA.com editor Jon Donley turned over his NOLA View blog to his readers, who sent in dozens of calls for help. Those calls were relayed onto the blog, which was monitored constantly by rescuers, who then sent in teams to save them.
“The site has been fantastic — and quite a life saver — and I truly mean a life saver,” said Eliza Schneller via e-mail. “I listed a friend’s mother, who needed rescuing, on the site and between me and the numerous caring people who responded — she and her daughter where picked up by the National Guard. Bless everyone that had a hand in keeping that site up and running!”
According to Donley, the calls for help came via text messaging, since cellular voice services and landlines were down.
“It was weird because we couldn’t figure out where these pleas were coming from,” Donley told me. “We’d get e-mails from Idaho, there’s a guy at this address and he’s in the upstairs bedroom of his place in New Orleans. And then we figured out that even in the poorest part of town, people have a cell phone. And it’s a text-enabled cell phone. And they were sending out text messages to friends or family, and they were putting it in our forums or sending it in e-mails to us.”
Donley said that an aide of Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the commander of the relief efforts, had tasked a group of people with monitoring the NOLA View blog, and were taking notes and sending out rescue missions based on the postings. “In fact, one time we had some server issues,” Donley said, “and [the aide] wrote us frantically saying, ‘Get this up as soon as you can, people’s lives depend on it. We’ve already saved a number of lives because of it.'”
New Orleans residents displaced by the hurricane couldn’t get enough of NOLA.com’s detailed coverage. A former colleague of mine, James Lien, who was an archivist for the University of New Orleans, evacuated safely to Tennessee and told me about New Orleanians’ obsession with NOLA.com and satellite images of damage.
“We’ve been checking the NOLA.com blog religiously,” Lien told me via e-mail. “We were checking it literally almost every hour. They had so many small details and covered nooks and crannies of New Orleans that an Associated Press or major network person would NEVER have known or gotten right. … This was the first storm I’ve ever weathered where New Orleans people were obsessed with looking at satellite photos online. Google had them and a couple other places, Weather.com. Looking for a tiny speck of your house to find out if that tree in the yard fell down, or counting the number of front steps you could see on the church down the block to guess how high the water got over the curb. New Orleans people who evacuated were absolutely feverish about it.”
Bloggers Rex Hammock and Jeff Jarvis both said that the NOLA.com blog deserved a Pulitzer Prize for its work. Jarvis is the former editorial director of Advance Internet, and he helped push blogs onto Advance sites such as NOLA.com. He told me that hiring Donley was one of his best decisions at Advance.
“We started using blogging tools in the midst of the blackout a year ago when we lost power for too long,” Jarvis said via e-mail. “We didn’t have access to our publishing tools, so we just put up blogs (on Blogger, as I recall) to keep publishing. We then installed blogging tools for just such emergencies and also convinced newsrooms that they were a great tool for getting news up quickly, easily, and directly.”
As for a possible Pulitzer, the board has considered online presentations as part of an entry for the Public Service Award before. In this case, however, it was print journalism posted online with the absence of a print newspaper due to the hurricane damage. Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzers and a journalism professor at Columbia University, told me the Pulitzer board would have to consider any exceptions.
“As I understand it, the Times-Picayune, at some point, produced a paper as well as online coverage,” Gissler said via e-mail. “So, in theory, it could submit an entry reflecting both components. Under our rules, it is up to the Board to modify the rules or to make one-time exceptions to the rules. However, I do not want to speculate on what the Board may or may not do in a specific case. It meets again in November, its regular business meeting.”
If ever there was a case for an exception to the rules, this would be it.
The following is an edited transcript of my phone interview with NOLA.com editor Jon Donley, 50, who rode out the storm at the Times-Picayune’s hurricane bunker and later evacuated to Baton Rouge. At one point, he worked a 72-hour shift.
Online Journalism Review: Tell me a little about your background with NOLA.com and before that.
Jon Donley: I’m about to have my eighth anniversary with NOLA.com. I was one of the first people on the ground when we launched NOLA on January 1, 1998. Before that I was the online manager for the Express-News at San Antonio and helped roll out that site. And before that for 24 years I was a newspaperman.
OJR: What kind of preparation did you do for this kind of disaster in New Orleans?
Donley: This actually goes back to 1998, when we had Hurricane Georges which had spawned the largest evacuation in U.S. history of our area. Hurricane Georges just brushed us and mainly it went over Biloxi, Miss. And that was the first time in modern history that a mass of New Orleanians left the state. We had our site up not only a year yet, and we had launched a number of forums, and particularly weather forums. We had weather forums in San Antonio because people were using online a lot to discuss weather.
So we had people running out of here, and the natural thought is that your audience is gone. But what happened is that when people got where they were going, they quickly got online, an awful lot of them, and hammered our forums. It wasn’t anything we directed, they just went on there and immediately started sharing information: What happened to my neighborhood? What’s the damage? And we saw that this was the way it was going to be used whenever we had this type of emergency. We’ve had some sort of tropical storm or hurricane every year since. So we nailed down rolling out forums about weather ever since then.
In the meantime we started using blogging to do live event coverage. For example, we used blogging tools to cover the Sugar Bowl when LSU won the national championship — undisputed! We had one of our staffers in the press box making running commentary, color stuff, not trying to do play-by-play, but saying what the crowd was doing, that kind of thing. It was a complement to what people were watching on TV. We found that many of our readers watch television and surf the Net at the same time. We find that a lot in our chat rooms and forums.
About three years ago we started using Movable Type. Jeff Jarvis, who was our editorial director, he’s the grand prophet of blogs and citizen journalism, and we jumped in and started using them. We started about five years ago, rather than staying separate from the newspaper, we started going into the hurricane bunker, when the power went out and the building went dark. We put multiple generators and triple redundancy Internet connectivity in there. [The newspaper operation] invited us to sit out the storm with them so we could continue to get news out in the storm.
Using Movable Type to publish was something we worked into our regular coverage. During Hurricane Ivan [in September 2004], we sat in the hurricane bunker and posted all of the updates as we got them. We had a lot of the tools in place, and this past July on Independence Day weekend, we heard that the forecasts for this hurricane season were that it would be a bad season. We started thinking that instead of evacuating once this year, we might be evacuating three or four or five times. And one of them may actually hit us badly.
During Ivan, we started creating zoned blogs based on the newspaper delivery zones, and the bureau chief from those areas had so much news coming in we wanted to separate it so people from those neighborhoods could find news easily. There were evacuations but not as many people leaving town. But in town, people started following those forums, and Cindy caught us by surprise. We thought it would be a tropical storm and it was nearly a hurricane that took out a historical number of electric customers and there was a lot of damage discussion on our boards.
We rolled out a feature during that week, we enabled RSS on the blogs and created a way to load those headlines automatically onto our home page. That worked out very well, and somebody from our newspaper was empowered that they could update headlines in short order on our home page and not have to go through some sort of news cycle.
OJR: Did you ever consider the possibility that you wouldn’t have a print newspaper?
Donley: No, it never occured to us, we never discussed it. The idea was to use the Web to give breaking information to people and then the full stories would be in the newspaper. When we heard this would be a Category 4 or 5, that had an effect on us, on the number of people we would keep around. Normally, I would take two people with me into the hurricane bunker but this time I just went in by myself. People really needed to get their families out. We had a smaller staff than we normally would.
The electricity went out very early on Monday morning [August 29] and it wasn’t settled until 8 or 9 at night that there wouldn’t be a paper out. But we wanted to put all the newspaper coverage of the hurricane online because of the massive number of evacuees who wouldn’t be able to see the newspaper anyway. We didn’t know ahead of time but put it up online for that purpose late in the day.
In the hurricane bunker we never lost electricity or Internet connectivity up until the time we evacuated. But we lost the library system, and [the newspaper editors] lost the ability to print stories to the XML depositories, they lost the ability to transfer photos. We started to put together crude transfer systems on the fly, but in the end we just started pasting the final print versions into the Weblog.
OJR: How did you make the decision to put literally all your print stories into the blog?
Donley: We have used a blog-style situation ever since Hurricane Georges for news updates and breaking news stuff, but never with the intention to run the print stories. They usually combine the tidbits into print stories.
We were running two blogs live. One was from the city desk and they were funneling news from their reporters. And I was running the NOLA View blog, first what we were experiencing in the newsroom and that morphed into reports from the police scanner. I’m used to listening to scanner traffic in one ear and taking notes on it, but this is something we’d never heard before. The only parallel was scanner tapes from the 9/11 emergency. It was that kind of stuff. I could actually hear phone calls patched through, and you could hear the water going up in someone’s attic, and you could hear the cops crying, “I can’t get to them, they’re dropping off the roof one at a time.”
Eventually people started sending requests for rescues. So that blog morphed from my little color thing to people reporting other people trapped and some of the agencies using it to rescue people. I have some remote producers monitoring that full-time and going through rescue requests.
OJR: I heard from a number of people posting on your blog that it helped save the lives of people they knew.
Donley: Necessity is the mother of invention. We do know that this Lt. Gen. Honore who oversees the military operation, one of his aides who has a group of people who have been monitoring the forum continually and taking notes and sending out rescue missions based on that information. In fact, one time we had some server issues, and he wrote us frantically saying, “Get this up as soon as you can, people’s lives depend on it. We’ve already saved a number of lives because of it.”
OJR: I can’t think of another online forum that’s saved lives like that before.
Donley: It was weird because we couldn’t figure out where these pleas were coming from. We’d get e-mails from Idaho, there’s a guy at this address and he’s in the upstairs bedroom of his place in New Orleans. And then we figured out that even in the poorest part of town, people have a cell phone. And it’s a text-enabled cell phone. And they were sending out text messages to friends or family, and they were putting it in our forums or sending it in e-mails to us.
The cell service didn’t work, but they could send text. They’re saying now that the body counts won’t be as bad as they thought, and I know at least some of that is that people figured out how to hack the system, to use this kludge to save people’s lives.
OJR: I read that at one point you weren’t sure about the safety of one of your daughters.
Donley: My daugher Sarah lived in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans. She lives right beside the 17th Street Canal where the levee broke. She would have been in great danger if she had not gotten out of there. We did convince her to get out of there. Her sister went out and picked her up and took her to our home in Mandeville. And then she refused to go any further. The big issue in Mandeville wasn’t the flood but the strong wind toppling huge pine trees which crushed houses. I’ve been through a lot of tropical stuff here and also tornadoes in Texas.
We got hit here a half hour before it hit her, and I told her to get north of I-12, and then we got cut off. It was just a natural father thing where I’m seeing trees here getting ripped up, and most of the houses on our street were crushed. They found my daughter and her boyfriend huddling in a corner of my house cooking sausage over a candle. A tree crushed our garage, trees crushed our outbuildings, but not our house.
That’s the way a lot of people are — they’re missing people and that’s what people were using our forums for. And a lot of them are turning out to be happy endings. People getting separated, going to different refugee centers, and ending up half a country away from each other. I was missing a dozen relatives in Gulfport, Miss. They were intending to stay in their house, and they were in an area that doesn’t even exist anymore. They were diehards, but they turned up yesterday so all of my people are now safe.
We even had a reporter from the Times-Picayune, Leslie Williams, who was sent down to Biloxi, and he was missing for a week, no word from him at all. As you can imagine, if you have a reporter that’s a mile or so from I-10 in an area of complete desolation, it’s not a good sign if you don’t hear from him. But he turned up the past couple days.
OJR: I saw that you had people who normally do arts coverage now covering the hurricane damage in the city. It was almost like trained journalists turning into eyewitness citizen journalists.
Donley: Most of these guys have done general assignment reporting before getting cushy jobs, and they certainly can jump back in and be some of the best writers in covering this story. We’re still in this crisis mode, with our website as the main publication because we have such a limited print run. Also because a million of our local community is displaced at the moment. We started a couple days ago, we created an opinion blog to deal with the mass of letters to the editor we’ve received. And we’re going to start a sports blog to start covering sports and the draft prospects of all of our players who’ve been spread all over the country now.
The living section wants a blog. They were joking at the news meeting the other day about doing something on feng shui for trailers. There’s less need for everybody to focus on the crisis because we have a group of 20 reporters covering the hurricane news, and the story is shifting to what’s happening to New Orleans now, and that can be in newspaper sections, but they’re going to be using blogs to do that.
OJR: Has the disaster changed the way that print people at the Times-Picayune now think about the website and blogs?
Donley: I’m not sure I can answer for them. You’re suddenly dropped into the middle of the biggest story of your career but you have no way of telling that story, so it’s an ideal time to embrace new technologies. [laughs] Like every paper, not to dog the Times-Picayune, in every paper, there are old-school newspaper guys and then there are people who are more eager to get into the Web. We’ve been doing blogs for a while, and we’ve been doing it for almost a year, where they agreed during the day to assign one of their city editors to gather the top five stories that they’re working on and do a short version of those. And then we’d get an RSS feed of those and do a mid-day special.
Reporters are slowly seeing that they can get their story in and have noon news at the same time as the TV news. But this [disaster] has thrown out all the rules. I don’t think there’s anybody at the paper who doesn’t see us as a close ally. And I don’t think we’ll go back to the way things were because we’ve been through too much together and depended on each other too much. Now it’s pretty clear, the advantages of doing it this way. I don’t know what it will look like when we get back to normal life, but I don’t think normal life will be normal for a couple years.
OJR: How did you operate the site under those extreme circumstances after the hurricane?
Donley: We’re part of Advance Internet, which is a separate division of Advance Publishing. We don’t share command structure, and we are located in a different physical location normally in New Orleans. We meet together but most of what we do is an automated feed, and I meet regularly with editors to talk about Web enhancements and special archives. Normally it’s pretty automated and their library system just flows stories into our templates, and in the morning we do graphic showcases.
Anybody who didn’t have instant messenger before the storm started, they’re all on instant messenger now. As the storm was coming in, I was holding training sessions, because there were about five or six people at the newsroom who had used our blogs. So they wanted to train a lot of people so if we got separated and they had to do it remotely. But our servers are located in New Jersey, and that was critical because when we hit 30 million page views, they had us on 24 servers instead of the usual four servers.
OJR: Was that your peak in page views?
Donley: Yes, it started on Sunday [August 28], when we had 10 million page views, and Monday was 17 million and it was rising up until last Friday when it was 30 million. Now it’s leveled off at around 10 to 12 million. In the first two weeks after the storm, we had over 200 million page views. Normally in a week we get 6 million page views or 800,000 to 900,000 per day. There is a wisdom to having those centralized servers to handle that traffic. During Mardi Gras we’ve had peaks of 25 million, but an awful lot of that are webcam views. With this, our webcams were knocked out early Monday morning, so when we hit our peak this time it was blog and forum traffic.
OJR: When you eventually evacuated the bunker, how did you publish to the site? Did you use e-mail and instant messenger?
Donley: We were scrambling a bit there, just to get out with our skin. We were eating breakfast on Tuesday morning, and everyone thought the levee break would only flood east New Orleans. But we went outside our own building after Katrina passed and there were a couple feet of water in the parking lot. All the windows of my car had blown out. The next morning the water was coming into the first floor of the building, and it was six feet deep around the building.
We were figuring we would just camp out and do news reports for a couple weeks, but we were running low on diesel for our generators and were starting to talk about rationing water. There were reports of rioting at the Orleans Parish prison across the interstate from us. The fear was that there was going to be a big outbreak and our families and friends would be in the path of that. Our publisher [Ashton Phelps Jr.] grabbed everyone at breakfast and said, “Drop everything, we’re going to back up the delivery trucks and try to get everyone in the delivery trucks to get out.”
We got a group of volunteers in the newsroom who were going to skip the evacuation, we were going to stay there. They were starting to drive away and the publisher came in and said, “You have to get out of here now.” I just tapped a message to an editor who was monitoring us on IM, and I started pulling things out of the wall and was able to connect sporadically during the evacuation using my cellular Internet connection. I was also able to connect with my cell and do an audio blog. I told the remote editor to watch for audio blogs. We did that. We were out of connectivity while we were in transit. I couldn’t get a cell connection in Baton Rouge at all.
The trucks were able to get through the water around the paper, we went through a mile of water that was up to the headlights of these diesel delivery trucks. Then they hopped the fence and got to Interstate 10, which was above the flood and where some of the refugees were stranded on the elevated roadways. Then we were able to cross the bridge from downtown to Algiers and down to bayou country. And we dropped some of our crew in Houma to start updating the blog, and the rest of us went to Baton Rouge, and came to a business park in a temporary newsroom now. We’ll be operating out of here for at least a couple of months.
Some managers have gone back to the Times-Picayune building. It’s still surrounded by water but it appears there hasn’t been any damage, the presses aren’t damaged or badly enough that they’ll be out of commission too long. They think they’ll be able to get back to the building, but most of the market is gone and most of the infrastructure is gone. So the publisher said we’re ready to go back to New Orleans when New Orleans is ready for us.
OJR: In hindsight, is there anything you could have done better or prepared for the website?
Donley: Our website got a complete redesign [on the fly]. By the time we evacuated we were in a completely different design. If you look at the other affiliates, we have a cookie-cutter design, but it’s not something that was designed for a major disaster. New Orleans is now a one-story town, and we don’t know when we’ll have an entertainment section again.
When I told people in New Jersey [at Advance Internet] what we were going to need, they pulled some designers together to redesign it. Plus our forums have been used more than we ever dreamed of. And we were working with an advertiser database company to roll out a missing persons database, with a page for missing persons and their photos. So we had a missing persons database, which is being expanded to include housing opportunities and jobs. And that’s a new piece of technology that was turned around in two days.
OJR: I saw that you were looking to hire Web producers. Is that still the case?
Donley: My understanding is that this advertisement was sent out prematurely, while we were having internal discussions about an immediate need to bolster our staff. Because of fatigue for those of us who had been working almost continually since a couple of days before the storm — including a nearly 72-hour stretch for me — and the immensely increased workload, Advance Internet was working hard to put more boots on the ground.
One of the immediate ideas was to hire some extra full-time producers (the word we use for Web editors) from outside the company. In the end, the staffing needs were met by directly drafting editors and producers from almost every Advance site. The editor of PennLive.com — Steven Ibanez — for example, flew down and worked beside me and took over the long night shifts to give me rest. Long term, we are still discussing staffing needs. There is going to be a lot of extra work to do as New Orleans rebuilds — much more than we usually have. And we may end up having long-term needs to increase staff. We aren’t, however, currently advertising for them.
OJR: So what’s the condition of your house in Mandeville?
Donley: We had some uninvited guests who tossed the place, but they didn’t destroy anything. When my wife evacuated, I had her take my CPUs with her, and the box of important papers. It’s just a mess but it’s inhabitable. We’re going to hold our first church service since the hurricane. From what I understand, 60 percent of our congregation lost their homes. It will be a family thing where we will hold each other and support each other.
OJR: What’s the word on whether Mardi Gras will happen next February?
Donley: In every city where there is a refugee camp there will be a Mardi Gras parade. People are vowing there will be a Mardi Gras in New Orleans next year, and it will be a healing type of thing. People want to be in New Orleans because it will be a historic thing, a rebirth statement.