DAILIES DROP THE BALL ON HURRICANE STORY
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES, Aug. 28, 2005 -- The fact that newspapers have lost at least one critical race with the electronic media was made crystal clear today. Neither the Los Angeles Times nor the Daily Breeze saw fit to run the Hurricane Katrina story on its front page. The Times at least managed to run a photo of motorists waiting in line to get gasoline as nervous New Orleans residents began to evacuate their city.
The photo caption reads, "Fueling Up to Flee the Hurricane: After waiting in a long line in New Orleans, Danny Lawless fills his car's tank before joining tens of thousands of other residents who drove inland, hoping to escape Hurricane Katrina's second strike. Landfall is expected Monday, the National Hurricane Center said. A14." The term "A14" refers to an article which appears on page 14 of the first section, titled "Thousands Flee as Hurricane Closes In."
The Breeze didn't even run a front page teaser. The paper did manage to run a hurricane story on page 10, but for some reason it wasn't considered as worthy of first page treatment as was a continuing story about an abandoned pet. Admittedly, the pet in question is a six foot alligator that was left in a local park a couple of months ago. Two teams of alligator hunters have tried but failed to trap the animal, providing no end of fun for local newscasters. Sunday's front page links to "Gator Watch Day 16." But the Breeze somehow failed to mention Katrina, a somewhat larger beast, on its first page.
We may wish to speculate about why such a big story has been so underplayed by serious newspapers, but the fact is undeniable that the newsprint-media treated it less seriously than the electronic media.
Internet news sources such as CNN.com and television network news shows are full of up-to-the-minute coverage on the hurricane that is reminiscent of "War of the Worlds," or "Independence Day." There is a very real danger that New Orleans will be submerged under ten to twenty feet of water within the next twelve to twenty-four hours with resulting destruction of a nearly unimaginable level.
The satellite images are breathtaking in their lack of subtlety: The storm system basically fills the eastern end of the Gulf. Photos show a circular system that as of this writing brushes against the Gulf Coast states to the north and extends along the entire western side of Florida to the east. Announcers explain what it means to be a Category 5 storm and that winds are now up to 165 miles per hour. Time lapse moving pictures on the CNN site show the storm moving directly towards New Orleans. Lines of cars are shown moving out of town. It is expected that hundreds of thousands of people will leave or have already left New Orleans.
If the storm passes directly over New Orleans, it would be one of the biggest stories of the year. The damage would be monumental. At least this is the prediction being played over and over on tv and the internet. Coverage in the local newspapers has been puny by comparison. There is a world of difference in the two approaches.
We have a cultural memory of newspapers as breakers of news. "Kennedy Assassinated" or "Victory in Europe" come to mind. The problem with this image is that the newspapers were not the first to break those stories even then. Radio as a news medium was already well established even prior to World War II. The newspaper covers that are shown in books and on televised histories featured stories that were already several hours old even when they first appeared. Still, the newspapers added something to the overall coverage in the days of early radio and television. For one thing, the electronic media in those earlier days were much more limited in their ability to collect information on a timely basis and had limited time and channel capacity at their disposal to propagate it.
Even now, newspapers are the medium of record for news dissemination, and they have a huge capacity in terms of the space, depth, and number of words that they can devote to a story.
What is different though is the improvement in electronic news gathering, to the point that CNN and network television can provide a breadth and depth of coverage that rivals newspaper journalism. It is not so much that the electronic media are bigger or better, but that they are different in significant ways. The ability to communicate a story in full-color, full-motion images complete with a live sound track is taken for granted nowadays, but it is very recent in the historical sense. In the same way that television brought the Viet Nam conflict home to Americans in a sense that earlier wars lacked, the magnitude of the Hurricane Katrina story has been conveyed much more understandably on television and the internet.
Moreover, the electronic media are 12 to 24 hours ahead of the print media most of the time. This is the most significant point. It means that daily newspapers are no longer the primary sources of breaking news. For most Americans, that function probably is satisfied by local radio stations, with television providing the secondary coverage and newspapers bringing up the rear.
In this critical sense, newspapers have lost their ability to be news-breakers. They have become news reviews.
Does this help to explain why these two local newspapers covered the Hurricane Katrina story so much less intensively than television and the internet? In other words, did the Sunday editions treat the story less intensively because we only began to recognize the magnitude of the possible disaster within the past few hours? It's not clear, but some of the data are suggestive. For example, the Daily Breeze story (by Mary Foster, from The Associated Press) seems to be a little old:
Katrina was a Category 3 storm with 115 mph sustained wind Saturday, but the National Hurricane Center said it was likely to gain force over the Gulf of Mexico, where surface water temperature as high as 90 degrees is high-octane fuel for hurricanes. It could become a Category 4 monster before striking the coast early Monday.
The Times story by staff writer Scott Gold is similar: "Officials said they expected the storm to strengthen before landfall, possibly becoming a Category 4 storm or even a rare Category 5 -- the highest category of hurricane, carrying winds of more than 155 mph and a storm surge of 18 feet."
Presumably these stories were prepared sometime on Saturday. The Sunday evening CNN.com internet piece offers a different, bigger story: "New Orleans braced for a catastrophic blow from Hurricane Katrina overnight, as forecasters predicted the Category 5 storm could drive a wall of water over the city's levees. The huge storm, packing 160 mph winds, is expected to hit the northern Gulf in the next 12 hours and make landfall as a Category 4 or 5 Hurricane Monday morning." The rest of the story continues in this grim mode, making ominous predictions about widespread destruction and entire regions being rendered uninhabitable for weeks.
The obligate conclusion is that major stories developing hour by hour are no longer the exclusive province of the print media. They are always going to be twelve hours behind, and when it comes to the weekend they seem to be lagging by a day or more. Whether or not this explains the striking differences in Sunday's coverage between the daily papers and the electronic media is open to debate, but it is clear that electronic news networks have the advantage when it comes to this kind of breaking news.
There is of course another side to this whole question. Much, and probably most of the news that is reported in the electronic media originates in the print media because that is where thousands of real reporters work. They do the leg work on the hundreds of local, regional and international stories that eventually break out into the electronic media. They do the investigative journalism that leads to big stories.
What they don't do is put out a new edition every 20 minutes, the way news radio does, and they can't put out special editions at 5, 6 and 11 pm the way television does.
In this sense, newspapers are not quite "news" papers the way they were in the pre-electronic era. They are both something less and something more: Something less when it comes to the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and something more as they expand into broader and deeper lines of inquiry. It is all part of the process by which newspapers are being forced to redefine themselves in this electronic era.