By: Joe Strupp
In just his first four days on the job, Editor Steve Buttry of The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is overseeing what may be the most demanding story he will ever encounter at the paper.
With flooding that has devastated the town and surrounding counties, even forcing his newspaper to partially evacuate and run on generator power, the Gazette is covering what many call the flood that was not supposed to happen.
“I’ve covered Midwestern flooding before, but this is amazing,” said Buttry, a former editor at The Des Moines Register and Omaha World-Herald. “It is incredible.”
Prior to Tuesday, Buttry had been director of tailored programs at the American Press Institute. The 53-year-old took over as Gazette editor on Tuesday, just a day before the worst flooding hit the town. By Thursday morning, the Gazette had lost power to its newsroom and its adjoining television station.
“It is obviously difficult, but it is inspiring,” said Buttry. “The teamwork and resourcefulness have been wonderful.” Buttry says co-workers began teasing him about, “changing my mind, ” or “wondering if I got in over my head.” He laughs, declaring, “no, this is not going to deter me.”
It’s somewhat reminiscent of Howell Raines taking over as executive editor of The New York Times just days before 9/11.
When power went out, the paper switched to diesel generators, according to Publisher Dave Storey. He said flood waters had not seeped into the newsroom, but are being pumped out of the basement. The printing plant is located some eight miles away and has yet to be affected.
Although a mandatory evacuation of the downtown area has been ordered, Storey said government officials allowed the newspaper and television station to remain as “public servants.” “We got consideration from the city because of our service to the community,” he said.
Still, only about 100 of the 350 employees who normally work are in the offices of the newspaper and television station, with limited use of power and extension cords snaking through the newsroom, Storey says. “We have dozens out in the field,” Buttry explains. “Some of them are working from their homes, including our editorial page editor. Some have been personally evacuated, too.”
About 80% of subscribers have been receiving their papers during the ordeal, Storey says, adding that “the biggest problem has been navigating in the area, bridges are submerged.” Buttry says most of the news staff has been on the job, in the office or elsewhere.
Ironically, Buttry says one of his top API workshops was titled, “Don’t Let Obstacles Become Excuses.” “None of the stories I used in that match the effort I have seen here,” he said. “The people have been inspiring.”