Journalism is a highly competitive game, but my guess is that most of us who work in newspapers — or who ever have worked in newspapers — are damn proud to see the staff of the Houston Chronicle do such an outstanding job of delivering the news of the disaster that has engulfed their city.
The entire staff of about 200 journalists has been working since Sunday morning in the most dire conditions — some unable to leave their houses, all surely burdened with worries about their homes, families, loved ones — to deliver clear, accurate reports on the flooding, rescues, deaths, and potential further perils to their fellow Houstonians and the outside world. For thousands of displaced people, the arrival of the Chronicle every day amid so much chaos must feel like a miracle. And a truly welcome source of extremely important information.
Watching that staff’s work from here is especially inspiring at this time when journalism itself is under attack from no less than the president of the United States.
“Honestly, these are really, really dishonest people,” Donald Trump seethed of the news media at his recent rally in Phoenix. “And they are bad people. And I really think they don’t like our country. I really believe that.”
Yes, they detest their country so much that scores of journalists in Houston, young and old, responded to their city’s unimaginable inundation by trudging into the waters; going without food, sleep or showers; and sweating every last detail to ensure the accuracy of their reports.
The Poynter Institute’s Kristen Hare has written a rich account.
As thousands of people leave their homes and neighborhoods to flee massive flooding in Houston, journalists at the Houston Chronicle are spread out across the sprawling metro covering the story.
“Nobody covers hurricanes at this paper full-time, and now everyone is covering hurricanes at this paper full-time,” said Managing Editor Vernon Loeb.
All hands on deck is a cliche, he added.
“This is all hands on deck.”…
On Sunday at 10:24 p.m., investigative reporter Susan Carroll wrote a note on Facebook that captured what went into covering the floods.
Vernon Loeb ran a couple miles from his house to the newsroom this morning during the flood because the roads were impassable. He honestly didn’t seem to think twice about it. Lindsay Ellis walked a few miles in the storm, too. Al Lewis climbed over a flooded freeway ramp and waded through waist-high water while doing Facebook Live. Lomi Laura was stranded in her car at one point but still filed great copy. StJohn Barned-Smith’s car drowned, but luckily he’s OK and kept working. Emily Foxhall spent the night in a shelter and her day on a boat. Mike Morris waded through flooded houses in his neighborhood while Matt Dempsey rode his bike through Pearland snapping photos. Shelby Webb spent all of last night in the newsroom. I don’t think she slept at all. John D. Harden has been at the emergency command center literary for days. Keri Blakinger and Jacob Carpenter filed dispatches from down south and along the banks of swelling rivers. Rebecca Elliott, Greg Murago and Nancy Sarnoff talked to some of the people hit the hardest and left homeless, including a barefoot woman with a baby and no formula. Dug Begley filed a couple thousand words, raided the cafeteria and drove us safely to a hotel by the newsroom. Gabrielle Banks called a man back to double check the spelling of his dog’s name (thanks again!). And Mark Collette finally made it home to Meyerland on a jet ski, wearing another man’s shorts. We left Lydia DePillis, Dianna Hunt and Mike Tolson and many more in the newsroom tonight — along with Vernon, of course. Thanks, guys.
It so happens that I worked with Vernon Loeb for years at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and I’m a big fan of his talent. Over the years, I’ve been constantly bowled over by his passion and an energy level that borders on the superhuman.
In the article, he says this to Hare, perfectly capturing why all those people were working so hard:
“It’s like, ‘this is why we’re journalists,'” [Loeb] said. … “When it happens, this is why we’re here. This is the antidote to people saying reporters are evil and hate America. No, reporters aren’t evil and they don’t hate America. They feel an incredibly strong sense of obligation and responsibility and a calling to go out there and cover stories like this.”
Vernon elaborated on his Facebook page:
This is what we do, and the Houston Chronicle is how the people of Houston know. I really hate the #fakenews hashtag because it’s a bogus concept. I’ve been doing this for a long time at The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and now the Houston Chronicle, and I’ve never known a single colleague — not one, ever — to publish anything they thought was fake. It was, and is, grounds for immediate dismissal. What they really do is go out and report honestly and fearlessly, with skill and humility. They tell people’s stories with great care. They hold officials accountable fairly and accurately, and credit them for good performance. And they feel a tremendous responsibility for getting at the whole truth, which is always elusive. It’s a calling and we take it seriously. I know I’m biased, but I think the Houston Chronicle is the most important institution in the city.
This isn’t the first time that a big city’s newspaper has become a lifeline in an extreme emergency, often the only reliable means of accurate information when power goes out and radios and TVs are made useless. The Miami Herald is still remembered for its tenacity and heart after 1992’s Hurricane Andrew. The New Orleans Times-Picayune served miraculously after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, at a time when newspapers were being pummeled by economic and technological forces and bleeding red ink, their impending death being predicted almost daily.
In Houston, it’s not just the Chronicle that’s doing extraordinary work. Our sister Cox Media newspaper, the Austin American Statesman, is hard at it. TV reporters have rescued people from cars and trucks rapidly filling with water. Such as this local reporter, Brandi Smith, who stayed on the air after her CBS affiliate station was forced to evacuate:
When a catastrophe of this magnitude forces our colleagues to rise to new heights, others of us in the profession take a vicarious pride in the work they do. That’s why a group of journalists at The Washington Post — former Houstonians — arranged for a shipment of 20 dozen donuts to be sent to the Chronicle newsroom Thursday. It was a gesture of love.
As one of those Post reporters, David Farenthold, himself a formidable journalist, wrote to Loeb, telling him to expect the delivery:
What your staff has done over the last week – during the most trying time in our hometown’s history — has been nothing short of astounding. This is a small gesture of admiration, appreciation and awe. Keep it up!
Knowing Loeb, he and his staff are just getting started.
The Nosh Update, 3:20 p.m.:
As if to prove the point that journalists everywhere are taking pride in the Chronicle’s work, investigative reporter Nancy Phillips of The Philadelphia Inquirer “on behalf of proud journalists everywhere” sent the Houston newsroom two dozen COLD Heinekens, 14 pizzas and two huge Caesar salads. The staff has also received fajitas from the Dallas Morning News and “an incredible care package” from the Orlando Sentinel, according to Vernon Loeb.