After Evacuation, Rita Veers, Leaving Texas Paper Scrambling for Staff

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By: Joe Strupp

Like most south Texas newspapers facing the onslaught of Hurricane Rita, the Victoria Advocate moved quickly this week to evacuate its staff, plan for Web-based coverage during the weekend, and put off any local print product until at least Monday.

When the order came for a mandatory evacuation of Victoria County by 7 p.m. Thursday, the 34,000-daily circulation paper moved quickly to send its staff of more than 200 on its way, relocate many to office space in Austin, and keep only those critical to a limited reporting effort nearby. Editors even arranged an unusual deal with the San Antonio Express-News in which that paper inserted a four-page version of the Advocate in its editions so readers who had evacuated to the Alamo City could catch up on hometown events.

Then a surprise occurred. Rita changed her mind, headed in a more easterly direction, and the Advocate was (seemingly) spared. “We are probably not even going to get any rain out of this,” said Editor and Publisher John Roberts, whose family has owned the paper since 1961. “It has turned into a non-event here.”

When the storm moved away, the mandatory evacuation became a voluntary evacuation, and Advocate officials decided to put out a local print paper a soon as possible.

There was only one problem: most of the paper’s employees were long gone.

“We are back on the phone today to see who stayed and find out where our ad people are so we can gear up to sell,” Roberts said, noting that only six of his paper’s 33 newsroom employees are on the job and only 30 total employees out of 212 are in the building. “We’re trying to herd the cats, but it is hard after you’ve opened the gate to let them out.” Adds General Manager Barry Peckham, “our employee base is scattered all over Texas.”

For those who are on the job, Roberts said getting around the area during a mandatory 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew that remains in place through Friday is also difficult. “That is another complication,” Roberts explained.

Late-working newsroom staffers and early morning delivery people are subject to arrest during the curfew. The paper has sought to protect workers from the law by printing up a special letter from Peckham for staffers to show local police if they are stopped during the curfew, explaining that they are on the job or heading to or from work.

“It is kind of frustrating because circumstances change and you’ve got to make decisions based on them,” Roberts said. “It was a correct call at the time [to evacuate staff], but it has kind of unraveled the other way.”

Right now, the Advocate plans to run at least an eight-page edition of the paper on Saturday and Sunday, with the Express-News pages still slated for that paper’s Saturday edition. All pre-printed inserts and feature sections for the Sunday Advocate will be delivered with Monday’s edition. Meanwhile, a beefed-up Web presence at www.thevictoraadvocate.com continues.

“Victoria is somewhat of a ghost town right now,” Peckham said. “But people are coming back and we will be here for them.”

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