Top Knight Ridder Execs Describe Visit to Biloxi

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By: E&P Staff

In an extraordinary memo meant to be distributed to all Knight Ridder employees late this afternoon — from hurricane-ravaged Biloxi, Miss. — three top KR executives, including CEO Tony Ridder, described their current trip to the area.

The newspaper company owns the Sun Herald in Biloxi, which, amazingly, has published print editions this week, with the help of other Knight Ridder papers.

The memo, attributed to Ridder, Art Brisbane, and Larry Olmstead, was first posted on the Romenesko site at poynter.org. It instructed all publishers and editors to pass it on to everyone under them.

Here is the text.

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We wanted to describe for you our visit yesterday with the employees of the Sun Herald at our plant in the Biloxi-Gulfport area. We reached the plant about mid-afternoon, just in time to see Sun Herald special edition newspapers arriving from the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.

In general, conditions in the Gulfport-Biloxi area are stunning and terrible. Our route there, via I-10 from Mobile, Ala., gave us little warning of the extensive damage in and around our newspaper’s operation. We observed moderate damage to trees, debris in the road, signs down, etc., along the interstate. However, once we reached the vicinity of the east-west railroad that bisects the coastal community, we observed the massive impact of the hurricane winds and storm surge. South of the railroad tracks, the damage was nearly total. It was clear that the hurricane winds’ damage was powerfully compounded by the sweeping power of the high water rushing in, sparing only the strongest commercial-type structures. The casinos, an engine that supplies 20,000 jobs there, were ruined – with one pushed by the storm surge right onto the roof of a Holiday Inn, apparently crushing it.

The Biloxi team showed us aerial photographs, taken from a Coast Guard helicopter, that vividly showed a clear line of debris that had settled up against the raised bed of the railroad, which acted as a kind of levee. This debris line marked the final line of impact from the storm surge. Authorities, we are told, are finding casualties in this debris line and elsewhere.

When we arrived at the plant, we were heartened by the newspaper staff and visiting Knight Ridder employees’ overall state of mind. Clearly, those living in the area were struggling with their losses – we spoke with several employees whose homes were a total loss.

Notwithstanding their difficult personal circumstances, we found Ricky Mathews, his management team and a number of employees from the various newspaper departments actively engaged in planning the next day’s edition. With them were a number of Knight Ridder employees from other newspapers pitching in, including corporate’s Bryan Monroe who led a team that was the first to make its way into Biloxi from the outside on Monday night.

The plant itself, excluding some minor leaks and debris in the parking lot, was in generally good condition. The building has generator-powered electricity and hence is air-conditioned and comfortable, especially in contrast with the surrounding area. That service, however, is dependent on the continued availability of diesel fuel. The plumbing was not functioning because of a lack of water pressure.

Beyond considerations involving the next day’s edition, Ricky and his team were beginning to mount a major support effort on behalf of their colleagues. As of the time we left in the early evening, only 20% to 25% of the newspaper’s workforce had been accounted for. As of this morning, that number had risen to 50%.

Contributing to the difficulty of accounting for all is the substantial devastation of the area’s infrastructure. Hard-line telephones, cell phones, water service, electricity – all are unavailable. The local power authority reported that, for the first time in its history, none of its hundreds of thousands of customers were receiving service. Also contributing to our difficulty in accounting for folks was the fact that many had evacuated the area and were no longer present in the area. A full-scale effort is underway now to account for every Knight Ridder employee in the area.

We announced to the staff there that Knight Ridder will provide financial support to employees affected by the disaster, including low-interest bank loans that will be guaranteed by Knight Ridder. In addition, Knight Ridder will set up a matching gift fund and will match up to $500,000 in contributions made to affected employees there.

Besides the destruction of the infrastructure, another striking feature of the situation there was the scant presence of civil authority. We did see police controlling some intersections but we saw no military authority and no Red Cross or other health authority. It did not appear that any disaster center had been established by the authorities to communicate with the public. There appeared to be very little, if any, response yet to the enormous challenge of housing, feeding and supporting a devastated population.

Back at the corporate office today, we are conferring with colleagues here and around the company to advance our efforts to support Ricky and his colleagues. To those who have sent help, of whatever kind, we say thanks.

In particular, Knight Ridder is providing mobile housing, trucks of necessary supplies and staffing to cover the range of newspaper publishing and employee support functions.

In closing, it is very clear to us that supporting the Sun Herald employees and operation is going to require a sustained effort over a period of time. We are fortunate there are so many in the company who have come forward to help. You can expect that we will issue calls for more assistance from around the company in the coming weeks and months.

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