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COLUMN: From campus to Katrina

Michelle Krupa - Editor in Chief, 1999-2000 | Friday, November 3, 2006

To a recent high school graduate who wants a job in journalism, the significance of the college newspaper can’t be exaggerated. On most campuses, it is the best, perhaps the only, way to break into a notoriously impermeable industry. And it is, for many aspiring journalists, the first place they learn our craft’s cardinal rule: one error – even the slightest – is failure.

So when I first walked into The Observer office in 1996, I was intimidated, and not just by expectations.

There was the corporate look of the place, with its cluttered desks and nameplates with impressive titles. A low-level buzz infused the room in a tell-tale sign of daily deadlines. Not least of all, the news editor greeted me with an expert handshake, and after hiring me for a weekly shift, he hid all signs of mirth as he listed, in strict and crucial order, my new job duties.

What I witnessed seemed to be a highly technical machine, with a professional code and daily agenda of stories, always listed neatly on a giant grease board. This was a place where the top leaders were staunch, serious and unequivocally sober. If I followed their precepts, as people in this newsroom seemed to have done, I would reap success, I surmised.

Then I worked my first shift.

For 14 hours, ending at 8 a.m., I plowed through a series of disasters, from crashing computers to missing photographs to incomprehensible copy. I quickly threw away my task list and turned to the 20 or so students who happened to be pulling their shifts that same night. Most of them meandered barefoot around the newsroom, juggling a dozen tasks as they hollered, danced and debated about the content of tomorrow’s edition.

We were, as has been said of the world’s first pilots, flying by the seat of our pants.

As my nights added up and I climbed The Observer’s administrative ladder, I came to recognize that in newspapers – as perhaps in most facets of life – the ability to improvise is paramount. I found, too, that extemporizing is best executed in the company of people who, despite differences of faith, work experience and favorite pizza toppings, share a sense of ethics, humor, honesty, and a desire to reach the same goal, despite overwhelming odds.

When nobody knows precisely what they’re doing or how it’s going to work out, the best company to keep is with people you trust. It doesn’t hurt if they like to laugh along the way. That’s what I learned at The Observer.

When Hurricane Katrina lashed New Orleans last year, my newspaper had a plan as flimsy as the city’s levees. Though The Times-Picayune had written stories about the dreaded potential of the city to fill up like a soup bowl, our staff had few boats, a handful of satellite phones and no backup location to print the paper.

For weeks, we did nothing but improvise. Our editors, the ones who generally wore suits and enforced the company’s overtime rules, put on rubber boots and wrestled up generators to power our lap-top computers.

Reporters siphoned gas from half-flooded cars. The IT guys rigged wireless Internet at the hotel that became our home base. At night we crashed, side by side, on air mattresses. We shared granola bars and Jim Beam. We sobbed in each other’s arms over the fate of our ruined home.

We rarely knew what the next day would hold. We never had a decent blueprint for the coming day’s paper, even after our hotel-office took on the visages of a quasi-professional space. All of our regular rules for making a newspaper might as well have drowned in the flood.

But we had each other and a shared goal: to describe to the world the worst weather-provoked catastrophe in American history – without a single error.

The task was tremendous. And maybe someone, with the benefit of hindsight, will author a guide book someday for just this sort of scenario. But if my limited experience is any indication, even that document would be as useless as a fledgling editor’s inflexible strategy for managing a night shift at The Observer.

Of all strategies, the one that seems to works best – whether the disaster is a crashing computer system or a lake pouring into a city – is the plan rooted in the ingenuity of people who share each other’s objectives, trust each other’s instincts and are willing to dance and debate and cry their way through 14-hour shifts.

As The Times-Picayune staff banded together after the flood, sidestepping the company rule book just to get the paper out, I found myself lulled back to a familiar feeling. Perhaps it was the realization that imagination was our best resource, that innovation was our only option. Or maybe it was that weightless sensation – that feeling I experienced so often at The Observer – that deep down no one really knew whether it all would work out.

In either case, the result was the same: a newspaper got published, and our feet never touched the ground.

Michelle Krupa covers local politics for The Times-Picayune. She can be reached at krup78@hotmail.com