Weekly in Tornado-Destroyed Kansas Town Keeps Reporting

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By: Joe Strupp

Last Friday’s devastating tornado may have pretty much destroyed Greensburg, Kan., but it hasn’t stopped the tiny Kiowa County Signal, the town’s weekly paper, from covering the story as well as anyone.

Despite having its offices flooded and portions of its roof torn off, the three-person staff of the 1,200-circulation paper has kept up with the story all weekend, posting stories and photos to its Web site, as well as planning a six-page special edition slated for later today.

“I have been devastated by what I have seen, and am wondering if I still have a job,” said Editor Mark Anderson, the paper’s lone newsroom staffer, who works along with his wife, advertising manager Laurie Anderson, and a circulation manager. “I have not been as affected by it as [local residents]. But knowing so many of them, I feel like I owe it to them to try to give them perspective.”

Anderson, who lives 30 miles away in Pratt, Kan., spoke to E&P via cell phone as he drove in slow traffic along State Highway 54 Monday morning along with hundreds of others seeking to return to the community that has gained international attention following the tragic tornado. Newspapers from the nearby Wichita Eagle to the Daily Record of Glasgow, Scotland, have reported on the tornado that has destroyed nearly every business and home.

Although its offices are unusable and most of its readers and advertisers are gone for the moment, the Signal has continued to cover the story, posting items to the Web through its sister daily paper, the Pratt Tribune. Both publications are owned by Gatehouse Media and printed at the company’s presses in McPherson, Kan.

“It was a very interesting weekend,” said Tribune Editor Conrad Easterday, who said several of his reporters have helped the Signal report on the story. Since it is a five-day-per-week paper, the Tribune has not printed all weekend, posting only to the Signal Web site. “Our Web site is much clumsier for posting,” Easterday said of the choice to put everything on the Signal’s Web pages. “We were concerned about getting the Signal going and keeping it going.”

Among the photos posted is at least one by Allan Detrich, a former photographer for The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, who was fired several weeks ago after it was found he had altered numerous photos. Anderson said he was not aware of Detrich’s past problems, but said he believed Detrich had approached the Tribune with the photos, apparently at no charge. Easterday could not be reached for comment on Detrich.

The former Blade photographer, who is also an avid “storm chaser,” said he offered the images at no charge because “I didn’t want to make money on the hometown paper.” As for his past problems in Toledo, he declared in an e-mail, “I learned my lesson, and I am moving forward with my career with honesty and integrity.”

Anderson, whose paper normally prints on Wednesday, said he was in Pratt Friday night when word of the tornado spread through local television. When reports came that 60% of Greensburg had been destroyed, he said he drove back roads into town, arriving at about midnight. “It was unbelievable devastation, the whole scene,” recalls Anderson, who has run the weekly for three years. “I had taken pictures Thursday of two ribbon-cuttings for new businesses that no longer exist.”

The editor said he immediately began shooting photos of the devastation, vehicles crashed into buildings and triage areas. “But I didn’t want to interview people because it had been so much for them,” he admitted. “It has been hard for me to deal with it objectively.”

Hard or not, Anderson, who is also a pastor at three area churches, worked with the borrowed staffers from Pratt and posted items all weekend. At least 18 related stories and columns are on the site. “I have been getting up at 4 a.m. because I can’t sleep,” says Anderson. “I keep thinking about it. I have had maybe five hours of sleep since Friday night.”

Likely the most impacted Signal employee has been Circulation Manager Stan Navarrette, who moved to a new home in Greensburg just five days before the tornado and is now homeless. “It’s been a tough week,” Navarrette said in a story about his situation on the Signal Web site. “I could do without another one like this for quite a while.”

Still, Anderson says the paper will continue to post items and plans to have the special edition out today, with another one likely for Tuesday. When asked if the weekly will survive beyond this week, especially with most of its readers and advertisers displaced, Anderson said, “that is a good question.”

“We don’t know what the future of the town is,” he added. “Almost all of the businesses are gone right now.”

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