Baton Rouge Paper Rides Out Storm — and Offers New Home for the AP

By: Joe Strupp

Although The Advocate of Baton Rouge, La., sits some 80 miles from storm-ravaged New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina’s pounding of The Big Easy is being felt in the newspaper’s own offices.

Not only has the capital-city daily deployed dozens of reporters and photographers to cover the torrential storm and its aftermath, but it has become a safe haven for the Associated Press’ New Orleans bureau, and nearly ended up printing Tuesday’s Times-Picayune.

As if that weren’t enough, The Advocate is also in the midst of preparing to move to a new home next week. “We have been packing up for seven weeks and this is a little bit of a distraction,” Linda Lightfoot, Advocate executive editor, said with a laugh. “But we are doing well.”

Advocate officials said the hurricane knocked out power at the paper’s printing plant early Monday, but it was back in time to print the Tuesday edition this morning. The Monday paper also was not affected because it was printed before the storm reached Baton Rouge. “We printed and delivered on time,” said Barry Le Blanc, information technology manager.

Le Blanc also had arranged with the Times-Picayune to publish its Tuesday edition, but the plan was abandoned at about 9:30 p.m. Monday, he said, when Times-Picayune officials called off the idea. The New Orleans paper ended up publishing a 28-page PDF version. “We could not get the phone lines together so they elected not to do it,” Le Blanc said.

In a chilling move, the Times-Picayune abandoned its New Orleans office Tuesday morning as flood waters continued to rise.

AP, meanwhile, relocated five reporters and editors and one technical staffer from its New Orleans bureau to The Advocate newsroom on Monday, Lightfoot said. They were working out of the Advocate’s sports department this morning, while the paper finds other desks for them to use. “They’re probably going to be here for several days,” she added. “They are just doing their AP thing.”

Additional news people are expected to arrive from the AP Houston bureau later today to support the news organization’s hurricane coverage out of Baton Rouge, the editor said.

AP Spokesman Jack Stokes told E&P that 30 staffers were covering the story in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, with some restricted to dictating stories via cell and satellite phones. “We have staffers working out of their own homes, some in cars and trucks,” he added. “All of the story planning coverage is based on trying not to put a further burden on staffers in the areas that are affected, some are traumatized by what thy have seen.”

Stokes said that no AP personnel had been trapped or injured covering the hurricane as far as he knew.

As for The Advocate’s own hurricane coverage, Lightfoot said the paper sent 10 reporters and photographers around the state in the past two days, with another 15 working on the story from the newsroom and related bureaus. The paper has about 140 newsroom employees, including part-timers, she said.

“For a time, we could not get into New Orleans,” the editor said. “We had one person downtown before the storm hit and he was in a hotel and they would no let him out.” That person was a photographer who was barred from leaving the hotel for several hours Monday, according to Photo Editor Tim Mueller.

“There was glass falling all over the place [outside] and they would not let him out,” Mueller said about the hotel, which he declined to name. “He eventually got out and filed at about 9:30 last night.”

Muller noted that cell phone use was the biggest headache, with most of his staff unable to communicate from the southern part of the state. “We had one photographer in Slidell and we lost contact with him for about 12 hours on Monday,” Muller said. “We were close to calling the state police when he showed up here last night at 10:30.”

Lightfoot said the paper still plans to move to its new home next week, with the relocation scheduled over several days from Sept. 9 to Sept. 14. The building is about four miles away, closer to the paper’s new printing plant, and is being leased from the Jimmy Swaggart Ministries.

“It really shows what people are capable of,” she said about the newsroom response to the many demands. “Everyone is doing what we asked of them.”

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