This is a column I wrote in Media Guardian on Sept. 12, 2005:
How Katrina humbled the American news machine
Monday September 12, 2005
In less than a day, Hurricane Katrina rendered worthless the printing presses and broadcast towers that made big media big. And that will change news forever. The New Orleans Times-Picayune found itself with no presses, trucks or newsstands and, as the waters rose, no office or staff. Two of the city’s TV stations lost their studios and transmitters. And they all lost their audience.
So New Orleans’ biggest media outlets were forced to flee to the internet, where they did incredible jobs reporting this overwhelming story to anyone online anywhere. Traffic to the Times-Picayune’s sister site, nola.com (which I launched and until recently oversaw as president of its corporate parent), multiplied fivefold. The paper’s publisher, Ashton Phelps, called the internet a lifeline. Editor Jim Amoss called the blogs they used to publish news “absolutely essential”. Trust me: before Katrina, this is not how American newspaper editors talked about the web and weblogs. But after Katrina, they will.
A month ago, in my first column for Media Guardian, I suggested, brazenly, how newsrooms ought to change in the internet age. In New Orleans, I’ve watched those changes come overnight. Journalists no longer waited for their next edition to tell their stories. To get the news out, they relied on humble weblog tools. Meanwhile, from out-of-town studios, the TV stations broadcast to the web at WWLTV.com and WDSU.com and they, too, used weblogs, forums and other tools to gather and share news. This served the New Orleans diaspora who could get online. It also gave us the unique local perspective on the unfolding tragedy. Usually, of course, we see the big story varnished and polished by national papers and international networks. But with Katrina, local journalists, survivors themselves, exposed their raw nerves and anger. The Times-Picayune’s online reports have been blunt and demanding.
We soon saw that same anger overflow from the national press as they shared horrifying scenes of disorder and pressed officials for explanations and action. This prompted political comic Bill Maher to rejoice “we got our press back”, and Washington Post critic Howard Kurtz to proclaim “journalism seems to have recovered its reason for being”. True. But it would take a blind, administration-toadying fool (and we have a few) not to get angry at the injustice, inequity and incompetence of this situation.
I have seen something else new in the US news media during Katrina: a touch of humility, an admission that news doesn’t come from the mountaintop anymore. CNN anchor Aaron Brown asked one night whether we yet knew the size of this story. He didn’t get an answer but didn’t need to, for his question was the answer.
The media have been catching up on every angle: we are only beginning to address the deep and profound racial nature of the story. Reporters standing knee-deep in the muck of destruction have taken to slapping around their happy-talk hosts to get them to hear just how bad things are. The ethics of rebuilding a city where lives can be so quickly lost are only now being examined and it will take years to investigate the failures of government.
But journalism’s rediscovered courage and newly discovered fallibility are, I will contend, less profound changes than the one brought on by the flooding of presses and the toppling of towers. For at that moment, news was freed from the shackles of media. Now he who controls distribution no longer controls news. And news is no longer shaped by the pipe that carries it. That is what Katrina did to the news.
Rex Hammock, a magazine publisher and fellow blogger at Rexblog.com, wrote that the Times-Picayune and nola.com deserve a Pulitzer for their news blogs. I second that. It doesn’t matter whether the work came rolling off a press or a blog: it is journalism of the highest calibre and greatest service. The Pulitzer committee would serve journalism well by separating the content from the container, the medium from the message, and recognising great reporting wherever and however and from whomever it comes, with or without a press.
Â· Jeff Jarvis is a media consultant who blogs at BuzzMachine.com