As Hurricane Matthew approached the town of Lumberton, N.C., last October, Donnie Douglas, editor of The Robesonian, had a critical decision to make. How would he and the rest of the staff cover the impending hurricane, and most importantly, where would they do it from?
Regardless of what was about to happen, its newsroom understood that it would be the only source of information for much of Lumberton and Robeson County.
“We were very resilient, but also quite effective using the resources that we had, which were minimal. I went to Charlotte and worked remotely, and my managing editor was on the ground, with one or two reporters,” Douglas said. “I have been in the business for 33 years, and I have never been more proud of what a newsroom I was part of accomplished.”
While the reporting carried on, the damage left behind by the storm proved to be devastating for both the paper and its local community. Almost everything—chairs, desks, filing cabinets, cubicles, computers and thousands of paper files—were ruined by flood waters that breached The Robesonian’s headquarters. At one point, the water rose as high as 16 inches inside the facility before it receded in a matter of hours. The staff doesn’t expect to return to the building until February or March.
Meanwhile, nearly 5,000 people were displaced from their homes and almost 8,000 structures were affected in some way. Basic utilities such as electricity remained out of operation for several days after the storm had passed.
“So many things were impacted by this hurricane, whether it be the schools, local government or even commerce,” Douglas said. “The impact was truly devastating.”
Despite missing six print editions in the aftermath of Matthew, the newspaper’s website (robesonian.com) and Facebook page were updated consistently on a daily basis. An e-edition of the paper was published every day too.
In addition to getting several reporters embedded at the town’s emergency command center, others managed to work from sister properties or in locations in and around Lumberton. Departments such as circulation, administration and advertising remained scattered throughout the area as well.
Former publisher Rick Thomason acknowledged that the overwhelming response it received in the midst of the chaos caused by the storm, provided an invaluable reminder to the necessity of local newspapers.
“We literally got hundreds of messages through email, text and Facebook letting us know how thankful people were for our coverage and it extended well beyond Lumberton and Robeson County,” he said. “One lady in the Midwest told us she was reading our coverage online and relaying information back to family in town that did not have Internet access. So it’s times like these when the public realizes that not only do we deliver, but we deliver with quality journalism when few others can or will do so.”