Covering the unprecedented

In the face of Harvey, Texas papers keep printing and posting

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Members of Texas-based Southern Newspapers Inc. haven't missed a beat even though four of the 16 papers are directly involved in covering Tropical Storm Harvey and its historic flooding.

"We haven't missed any editions of our papers," SNI president Dolph Tillotson said Monday from his home in Galveston, Texas. We've printed them all either in Lake Jackson or in Galveston."

Tillotson was grateful for electricity and only minor damage at the various newspaper buildings, with the exception of The Bay City Tribune. The staff evacuated ahead of time, taking their computers with them to The Kerrville Daily Times which is high and dry in the Texas Hill Country.

That was a good move, because Category 4 Hurricane Harvey made one of its landfalls in Matagorda County and additional flooding is continuing from water released from two large reservoirs. A mandatory evacuation of Bay City was ordered.

"We haven't been able to get in there and even look at the building, and probably won't for several more days at least," Tillotson said.

In addition to Bay City, the papers directly involved in the storm are The Galveston County Daily News, The Facts in Lake Jackson in Brazoria County, and The Baytown Sun just outside the city of Houston. On the fringes of the disaster are the Seguin Gazette near San Antonio and the Herald-Zeitung in New Braunfels.

Leonard Woolsey, publisher of the Galveston County Daily News, praised his staff's work.

"It is at times like this I am reminded why we were attracted to journalism in the first place," he said. "To see our younger journalists out coming back in from the storm to tell the community what they've seen is a powerful thing to witness. You can see the calling in their eyes. I am so proud of them."

Although the four papers on the Gulf Coast haven't missed a print edition, distribution is problematic.

"As an example of the challenges presented, we can print the paper in the city of Galveston, yet the three main highways that connect Galveston Island with the mainland and with the rest of our market are cut off by flooding," Tillotson said.

"We can print the paper, but getting it to the street is another challenge altogether. So that's why we're relying pretty heavily on the internet to do that right now."

One of the first moves for SNI was to take down the paywalls on its websites. "All of our material is now free and we're posting on a 24-hours-a-day basis," he said.

In addition to relying on their websites, the papers are also using their primary social media outlets: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. They are also sharing information among themselves in an environment in which moving from place to place is difficult at best.

Tillotson said he's amazed at how employees continue to do their best even when their own homes have been damaged. Galveston's retail ad manager was flooded out of her home Sunday evening and had to go to an emergency shelter. The publisher of The Facts, Yvonne Mintz, was preparing her home near the Brazos River for possible flooding on Monday afternoon.

With wisdom gained through long experience with hurricanes and tropical storms, each paper on the Gulf Coast and the SNI chain as a whole has a pre-established plan for disaster, covering both production and news coverage. Ideally, everyone knows where they are supposed to be well ahead of time.

"I've been in the newspaper business close to 50 years now, and it always amazes me the way newspaper staffs in general are at their best at times like this," Tillotson said.

"It's exciting to me to realize that even in today's age, people really look to their local newspaper to be the leader in time of disaster and stress. Usually newspapers stand up to that challenge pretty well."


Jane Nicholes

Jane Nicholes is a freelance writer and editor based in Daphne, Ala. Reach her at jbnicholes@att.net.

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