Three years before Hurricane Katrina, Mark Schleifstein and his colleague, John McQuaid, reporters for New Orleans' Times-Picayune, warned in a front-page series that the big one would hit New Orleans one day, and that it would submerge the city.
When the big one finally bore down in August 2005, Schleifstein, a 23-year veteran of the paper, went to his temple and told his rabbi to put his Torah in safekeeping. Then he went to work, even though the federal government's top hurricane forecaster called to warn him to prepare for the worst. His own home would be wrecked.
"This is very hard to understand, but I had already processed all that stuff, because I expected this to happen," Schleifstein says. "I've always expected this to happen. I've always understood what the risk was."
Amid the chaos that ensued, accurate information was often the rarest commodity. The news media often proved far more reliable than the very government agencies that were supposed to have answers for the citizens they served. And as water inundated the city, its dominant paper, The Times-Picayune, found its true calling.
A Print Lifeline
The storm hit Monday, and the national media initially filed reports from scenic spots like the French Quarter that New Orleans had ducked the worst. But by late afternoon, Times-Picayune staffers — from top editors to the art critic — started calling in. The neighborhoods were flooding.
By Tuesday morning, water was lapping at the paper's parking lot — a couple hundred staffers and relatives were evacuated — but reporters were deployed throughout the region. The paper published continuously online and returned to print after four days.
Robert Thompson, a New Orleans coffee house owner, says the Times-Picayune was an invaluable lifeline during the weeks after the storm.
"When we had a suburban friend come and bring us a paper to our coffee house, there was a community of 20 to 30 people sitting over a coffee pot we kept going at that time, snatching and grabbing at it," Thompson recalls.
More than FEMA, more than City Hall, Thompson says that the Times-Picayune delivered vital information to readers: where they could get food, water, clothes, ice and where they could seek missing relatives.
The paper has regularly printed stories about selflessness and sought out successes to highlight. But it has also doggedly chronicled the multiple failures by federal and local officials that led to the breaching of the levees. It is an article of faith among journalists in the Times-Picayune's newsroom that Katrina was an act of man, not God.
"There's nothing abstract about this subject for me," says Jim Amoss, the Times-Picayune's editor-in-chief who has spent his entire career at the paper. "It's the anger I feel personally when I see ... a whole neighborhood languishing in the muck because federal money hasn't gone through to help people rebuild."
The paper suffered along with its city. Reporters didn't live with their families for months. Marriages frayed. A photographer attempted suicide. The paper lost money as advertisers and readers vanished, and dozens of Times-Picayune journalists left town for good.
For many journalists who stuck around, however, there's a clear mission: intense, local coverage. The resignation of President Bush's top adviser, Karl Rove, only made page nine on a recent weekday. Page one was dominated by a local scandal and Katrina-related property tax hikes.
Charting Its Course
The newspaper has also guided the rest of the media in its reporting on New Orleans. Amoss and USA Today Editor Ken Paulson arranged for 17 executives and top editors at that paper, the nation's largest daily, to receive tours of the city and detailed briefings from Times-Picayune editors and reporters. Both editors say USA Today's coverage changed markedly immediately afterward. And, girding for the onslaught of stories about the second anniversary of Katrina, the Times-Picayune published a lengthy editorial in early August debunking what it called the top three myths about the hurricane and its aftermath.
Amoss says he now has little patience left for reporting that delivers the perception of balance at the cost of understanding.
"We don't hesitate to zero in on problems and to criticize leaders when they fall short," he says.
The paper has rethought all of its coverage. Feature writer Renee Peck, who once edited the television section, now writes a column called "This MOLD House." Her own home was flooded, and then hit by a tornado.
"My first assignment was a re-entry story," Peck remembers. "What do you do when you're coming back after the flood? Do you need tetanus shots? Do you need hepatitis (shots)? What do you do if there are snakes in the water?"
These days, business at the Times-Picayune is picking up. The paper is finally making a profit again, and advertisers and readers have returned. Amoss has been given the green light to hire again.
Schleifstein and his wife sold their badly damaged home and moved to Metairie, a nearby suburb. He says he expects to stay at the paper and cover the aftermath of the hurricane for the rest of his career.