In 2005 when their city drowned, the staff of the New Orleans Times-Picayune stayed in it longer than common sense and simple prudence would dictate. People who had lost homes, loved ones, and their city itself concentrated on gathering the news and putting it out. They finally left huddled in newspaper delivery trucks, water up to the headlights, decamping to Baton Rouge, 75 miles away, where they went right back to reporting the news.
Last month, that paper announced it was cutting staff and suspending daily publication, moving to a three-days-a-week schedule. We draw ever closer to the once-unthinkable day some major American city has no newspaper whatsoever.
All of which lends a certain pungency to something Sarah Palin said recently at a conference of conservative activists in Las Vegas. “Every citizen can be a reporter, can take on the powers that be,” she said. According to Politico, she was quoting Matt Drudge. Ordinarily, you would dismiss it as just another silly thing Sarah Palin said. There is no shortage of those.
But these are hardly ordinary times for journalism. So forgive me if I am disinclined to let it go.
As it happens, I spent nearly a week on the Gulf Coast in Katrina’s wake. One night, I had the distinct honor of sleeping in an RV in the parking lot of the Sun Herald in Gulfport, Miss., part of an army of journalists who had descended on the beleaguered city to help its reporters get this story told. The locals wore donated clothes and subsisted on snack food. They worked from a broken building in a broken city where the rotten egg smell of natural gas lingered in the air and houses had been reduced to debris fields, to produce their paper. Shattered, cut off from the rest of the world, people in the Biloxi-Gulfport region received those jerry-rigged newspapers, those bulletins from the outside world, the way a starving man receives food.