By: Jay DeFoore
As Hurricane Katrina’s deadly gale-force winds bore down on New Orleans last Monday, dumping water that would later engulf the city, NOLA.com editor Jon Donley was hunkered down in the Times-Picayune’s “Hurricane Bunker,” listening to the police scanner and posting updates using the site’s blogging software.
Before its offices were literally swamped with water, the Times-Picayune was inundated with frantic phone calls from city residents crying out for rescue. People trapped in their attics sent text messages to friends outside the state, who then used the NOLA.com blogs and message boards to post the addresses and locations of their trapped friends.
“It turned into a vital link for people needing rescue,” Donley says of the Web site, which has received over 200 million page views over the past week and a half — several times its normal amount. “Aids to [Lt. Gen. Russel] Honore told us that his group was specifically monitoring our blogs for directions to trapped people, and they told us lives were saved because of [the Web site].”
Donley and his team of Web producers have been hailed as industry heroes not only for the stellar service they provided for the community of New Orleans, but also for the way they kept the Times-Picayune publishing — with three Web-only issues last week — when the flood waters chased the paper’s staff as far away as Houma and Baton Rouge.
Donley, who is now working out of rented office space in Baton Rouge, says there has been a “paradigm shift in the newsroom” over the past week as the paper’s print journalists have come to rely on the Web more than ever in getting the news out.
“We’ve had a transformation in how we in the newspaper deal with each other,” Donley says, noting that the Newhouse-owned NOLA.com, which previously had operated separately from The Times-Picayune, is now participating in daily news meetings. “I’ve had training sessions with dozens of reporters, photographers, and editors who found they were sitting on the biggest stories of their lives and they had no way to get it out.” Donley says Times-Picayune staffers who initially regarded blogs with skepticism now see them as an indispensable — and fast — publishing tool.
Much of NOLA.com’s post-Katrina success has come from the way the community of New Orleans has utilized it. “We’re a place where the community can tell its own story,” Donley says. “I don’t want to overuse the term ‘citizen journalism,’ but that’s what’s going on.”
The fact that NOLA.com was able to become such a valuable beacon of citizen journalism should come as no surprise to anyone who visited the site prior to Hurricane Katrina. The Web site normally operates nearly 120 forums on topics ranging from nightlife in the French Quarter to prep sports. As Katrina hit, the NOLA team repurposed many of the forums to deal with missing persons, specific neighborhoods, and horror stories.
The on-the-fly publishing system Donley and his team have built for hurricane coverage actually dates back to Hurricane Georges in 1998.
“One thing George showed us, because such a huge amount of people were leaving [the city], is that all of these hundreds of thousands of people who left wanted to know when the electricity was back on in their neighborhoods,” Donley recalls. “They immediately got on the Internet and began slamming our site, looking for information and perhaps more importantly, exchanging information.”
Last year, NOLA.com began using blogs to post regular midday updates. During Cindy and Dennis, which struck New Orleans over the Independence Day weekend and the week after, NOLA.com began running breaking-news blogs using an RSS system to feed constantly updated headlines to the breaking-news section of the Web site.
“The idea that [Times-Picayune reporters] were able to report news and be competitive with TV and radio, they found that very empowering,” Donley says.
NOLA.com normally receives 6 million page views a week, or 800,000 to 900,000 a day. Starting the Saturday before the hurricane, the site received a total of 200 million page views in just a week, peaking at 30 million on its busiest day. Even this week, as the majority of people have evacuated and the relief and recovery efforts began in earnest, Donley says the site is still attracting a healthy 15 million page views a day.
But for all their success, the NOLA.com team isn’t sure of its future.
“It’s been a pretty grim scene here,” Donley says. “I’ve even seen the publisher crying. Most of us have quit watching TV. At least half the people here know they’ve lost their homes.
“We’re just doing the job. I guess it’s cathartic in a way. We’re doing our own brand of rescue for our town.”
A notice went out on online journalism message boards late last week asking for experienced Web producers to help out the overworked NOLA.com team. But Donley says that right now there’s no place to put extra bodies, and even he and other reporters have been reduced to “living off the kindness of strangers,” all the while working 18-hour days.
Still, Donley remains upbeat.
“I can promise you New Orlinians will be back in New Orleans and companies will be back,” Donley says, “we just don’t know when that’s going to be.”