National Press Club

Hurricane Katrina spurred renewed mission for journalists in New Orleans, Centennial Forum finds

October 3, 2008

NEW ORLEANS – Hurricane Katrina revitalized this city’s journalism, giving reporters a mission to save their city as they challenge a secretive city government for information, leading reporters told a National Press Club Centennial Forum at Loyola University Wednesday.

“I think people in newsrooms in this city had a great sense of purpose after the storm,” said Greg Shepperd, assistant news director at WDSU-TV and president of the Press Club of New Orleans. “We are looking for solutions to the problems that are plaguing our community. I think everyone is really invigorated by that.”

Shepperd was speaking at one of the National Press Club’s forums on “The First Amendment, Freedom of the Press and the Future of Journalism” the NPC is holding around the country to mark its 100th anniversary. Each a panel features leading local journalists discussing where the news business is going and how to protect its core values.

At the New Orleans forum, hosted by the local press club, the discussion focused on how journalism changed in the city following the catastrophic hurricane and flood three years ago.

Monica Pierre, co-host of WWL Radio First News talk show, said the radio station was praised for staying on the air during and after the hurricane as one of the few sources of reliable news.

“We didn’t know how critical and life saving and life changing it was,” she said. And that commitment remains as news organizations investigate recovery efforts.

“People will come into town and promise the moon and promise the stars, and when you start digging, there’s nothing there,” she said. “The commitment to follow the money and follow the level of commitment to promises is there, and I’m very proud of that.”

The New Orleans Times-Picayune has maintained its staff levels in the face of nationwide newspaper news staff cutbacks, said Adam Nossiter, who has been covering New Orleans for the New York Times since the hurricane.

“People here read the Times-Picayune with a degree of passion and commitment that is translated into their circulation figures,” Nossiter said. “They have the highest market penetration of any metro daily in America. That speaks to its commitment.”

At the same time, he said, the interest level nationwide in the city’s recovery allowed him to cover the story for the New York Times almost as though he were a local reporter.

“I don’t know of its equivalent for any similar story – not the earthquake in San Francisco in 1989 or the Miami hurricane in 1992,” he said. “The fact that people in New York were interested in local developments here is a tribute to what journalism should do and can do.”

The catastrophe allowed journalists in New Orleans to become more activist in their reporting, the panel said, and it opened the door to citizen-activist bloggers, who have become more influential.

One of them is panelist Karen Gadbois who works at Squandered Heritage, an organization that documents the demolition of homes in the city. Her investigation revealed that a federally funded city program to gut and repair storm damaged homes of the poor and elderly was a sham. Her work was picked up by television and newspaper reports.

“I found great synergy between mainstream media and blogging in New Orleans,” she said. “There is a focus that a blogger can give to a specific topic that a journalist may not have the time for.”

So much breaking news has been happening in New Orleans that regular reporters have difficulty doing the type of investigative work that Gadbois did, Shepperd said.

“You have seen some unique relationships between some community activists and some reporters to take a message put out there by a blogger and develop it into a credible story on television or the newspaper,” he said. “It’s part of the future of what is going to happen to journalism.”

All of the panelists agreed that journalism in the city is hampered by a secretive city administration that refuses to release public information reporters request.

“I can’t think of one record that was requested that was given to us,” said Pierre. “It’s a silly, crazy dance. They don’t give you anything. You don’t understand why it has to be that difficult.”

The next forum will be at 9 a.m. Friday, Oct. 3, at the Southeast Conference headquarters in Birmingham, Ala. It is co-sponsored by the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and the Alabama chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.

The NPC Centennial Forums program is sponsored by Aviva USA.

-- Gil Klein, National Press Club Centennial Project director


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