Serving their communities before, during and after Hurricane Irma

How newspaper companies got the job done

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A large percentage of SNPA's members were affected by historic Hurricane Irma. They managed to report the news amid power outages, flooding and dangerously high winds that struck most of Florida and parts of South Carolina and Georgia.

This was a storm that made landfall on the west coast of Florida but blasted the east coast. The eye moved through the center of the state. Initially, delivering a newspaper was difficult if not impossible, but websites could be updated constantly.

What follows are some of the newspapers' own stories.

West Palm Beach: Evacuation
From Tim Burke, publisher, Sept. 12

We evacuated our buildings ­­– The Palm Beach Post and Palm Beach Daily News – on Friday evening (Sept. 8) and operated and coordinated remotely. We have covered many hurricanes previously from our main facility but had not tested it under Category 4 or 5 conditions that were initially forecasted to strike late in the week. We did not want to take any chance with the safety of our employees and their families.

For planning purposes, we sent a team of unflappable editors and designers to Atlanta in advance of the storm so that we could produce a combined Saturday-Sunday print section and special e-paper sections for Sunday and Monday, when it was too dangerous to deliver the paper. 

Simultaneously, we reported and produced 24/7 locally on all of our digital/social platforms with reporters, editors and producers embedded in safe buildings such as the county's Emergency Operations Center, Florida Power & Light, Water Management District and our news partner WPTV. 

Upon returning to our facility Monday (Sept. 11), a small group of editors worked in the cafeteria using a power feed from an adjacent building. The coordinated efforts with our remote employees, both in the area and at our other Cox Media Group locations out of state, allowed us to continue to cover the storm digitally and produce a 24-page print section (Tuesday edition).

Everyone is safe, most importantly, and everyone continues to cover the storm and its aftermath.

Venice: Free papers
From David Dunn-Rankin, president, Sun Coast Media Group, Sept. 14

We are bruised but battling.  Most of our newspaper facilities are mostly back online. Our paper in Highlands County is down but will get up before the full ten-count. There will be at least three weeks before the power is fully restored in that county.  

We are quadrupling our distribution and giving out three free papers for each one paid so that every home can get a copy of the paper during this difficult time.  We are doing so because it is the right thing to do.

Read about the paper's $1 million Community Business Recovery Program

Lakeland: Eye overhead
From Brian Burns, publisher, The Ledger Media Group, Sept. 14

Ledger Media Group continued operations throughout the Irma event. Our news staff, production, sales, business and circulation teams performed with stellar professionalism in very adverse conditions during and after the hurricane for both The Ledger and News Chief products. We were fortunate to only lose power at our headquarters and print facility during the storm, and we resumed printing and delivery operations immediately. 

Our news staff hit the ground running, reporting from flooded areas and amid downed power lines and trees and homes that were destroyed. They really exemplified themselves as journalists. We constantly updated our web portals with breaking news, posted to social media consistently and created photo galleries to allow people the insight to truly understand the impact of the storm.

In our production area, we were able to get enough volunteers to print and package the paper while the winds were still howling in the Lakeland area. While we had earlier deadlines and much earlier routes due to curfews mandated, the staff in both production and circulation worked diligently to complete the task for our readers and community.

The pride I feel in these folks cannot be conveyed in words.

I personally had amazing support from my Regional VPs and Publishers Pat Dorsey and Jim Doughton, who were both in the crosshairs of Hurricane Irma as well. Pre-planning for this storm across many entities, and constant communication assisted all of us in dealing with the before, during and after-effects of a storm that affected our entire state. 

Savannah: Incorporating the lessons of Matthew
From Susan Catron, executive editor, The Savannah Morning News, Sept. 13

The Savannah Morning News/savannahnow.com staff started planning for this year's hurricane season earlier than ever. We were hit last year by Hurricane Matthew, and we weren't taking any chances. We're quick learners, and I'm reasonably paranoid from being in several storms when I worked in Pensacola.

The first challenge was the uncertainty. A week out, we were told we'd likely get broadsided by a Category 3 or 4 storm. By the time Irma arrived, it was a nasty, waterlogged tropical storm with lots of storm surge left. But you always have to plan for the worst.

We had already sorted out who might stay and who needed to evacuate. The newsroom had a strong team here at the SMN building. It's built to withstand a major storm, and the generators are reliable. We didn't lose power at all.

Our building is also a shelter for the county emergency management personnel. They eat and sleep here during a storm. I think it's important that people know we do that – we don't have to, but it's the right thing to do. Here is a link to a column I wrote on the arrangement: www.savannahnow.com/column/2017-09-13/newspaper-building-becomes-hub-hurricane-services-information.

We also sheltered newsroom family and pets. We had the photo studio full of cats, while dogs were spread around the building in crates. Many of us slept in unused cubicles and offices for two nights. One web producer slept in the newspaper morgue to be close to his computer.

In newsgathering, print was not our first concern – online was the key. We mostly divided our efforts into neighborhoods for presentation and newsgathering. We learned last year that there are two things people need to know:  How are my home and neighborhood? Will I be safe? Everything else comes second.

We followed that theme in our reporting by calling, mining social media constantly and using all the lists we had. Sports lists were invaluable because they represented coaches and players from all over the city – that was a lesson we remembered from Matthew.

When the wind let up, reporters took off throughout the area to see and report.

Distribution was a huge challenge – maybe the greatest. Our contractor-carriers evacuated last time, and we knew they would this time.

The storm was predicted to arrive late Sunday and be with us through late Monday. We opted to do a Saturday-Sunday combined edition with all the weekend ads and deliver it late Friday night and early Saturday. We caught people before they left – they got all the information we had.

Then we produced papers for Monday and Tuesday, but didn't print Monday right away. We had the e-edition replica ready online and printed Monday with Tuesday. We were ready for carrier delivery again on Wednesday and inserted the Monday-Tuesday papers into the Wednesday paper. Most carriers returned and other staff members picked up a few routes, as well.

The editor of our city magazine evacuated to Augusta and worked with the design center on Savannah pages. The center there also was working to serve the stricken staffs in Jacksonville and St. Augustine, Fla., so it was good to have her there.

We were lucky. Damage was less than anticipated. We had web content flowing 24-7 along with a huge flow of reader contributions of damage reports and photos.

We feel very fortunate that the Category 3 or 4 hurricane we first expected turned out to be a less intense storm, but we'll be covering the fallout for a while yet.

In the meantime, we'll be refining the plans and watching for the next one.


Jane Nicholes

Jane Nicholes is a freelance writer and editor based in Daphne, Ala. Reach her at jbnicholes@att.net.

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