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Friday, February 24, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dedicated journalists didn't bow to Katrina

Seattle Times technology reporter

The New Orleans roads were so flooded when Hurricane Katrina hit last year that David Meeks had to abandon his car on an overpass.

He would see the vehicle from to time over the next several weeks, as his team at the New Orleans Times-Picayune scrambled to cover the disaster. Sometimes strangers would be living in it. Driving it home was impossible, and there was no home to drive to anyway — Meeks lost his house.

Meeks, city editor of the Times-Picayune, recounted his experiences Thursday at a Seattle conference on using new media in public broadcasting. He was joined by Jason Hewitt, who heads the Web strategy for a Louisiana state network of public-television stations.

Both described how during one of the worst national crises in history, reporting was done by canoe, homes became temporary newsrooms and the Web log became the main news vehicle.

When officials ordered that the Times-Picayune building be evacuated, Meeks cobbled together a volunteer team to stay in town.

"I went to our editor and said, 'This is the biggest story in the world, we can't all leave,' " he said. But even then, there were no residents to receive the newspaper and few resources to produce one.

So the news team poured its energy into blogs, and reporters and editors who were previously leery of the format received a quick primer. The team borrowed a delivery truck and found a homeowner with a working phone line.

Soon, reporters were sending dispatches to editors, who posted the information for an anxious nation. No piece of news was too small or meaningless for the blog, Meeks said. Even a quick post about the water level at an intersection was important to some.

At one point, Meeks' crew decided to stop at a Wal-Mart for supplies. They found the store being looted by people, including police officers, and wrote about it.

With no newsroom available, the team moved from house to house, sometimes breaking windows and moving in to set up operations. Once, while in an uptown New Orleans home, a police officer stopped by to suggest that they arm themselves with weapons.

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The reporters called a newspaper photographer who was traveling with a SWAT team. Within 30 minutes, an unmarked car pulled up and the SWAT team handed over a shotgun and a handgun. The reporters never used the guns, Meeks said.

Within three days, the Times-Picayune was able to publish a newspaper. Because there was no distribution system, the reporters began handing copies out to anyone they encountered. People cried when they saw the newspaper, Meeks said.

"We were greeted like we were Jesus; it was unbelievable," he said. "After all the chaos people had been through, holding that newspaper in their hands gave them a sense of normalcy."

There was nearly no phone service in the region, Hewitt said, but text messaging and e-mail worked. Radio and television stations with working towers were able to transmit, but blogs became a major news source.

"I cannot tell you how important it was to have blogs set up," he said.

Louisiana Public Broadcasting stayed on the air but had no news team, so it partnered with the New Orleans CBS affiliate to broadcast news.

Blogs are still a big part of news operations at the Times-Picayune, Meeks said. Soon, the newspaper plans to include audio and video in its posts as well.

Meeks and Hewitt were invited to speak at the conference because they offer a real-life example of how news distribution is changing, said Mark Fuerst, executive director of the Integrated Media Association, which organized the event.

"Hurricane Katrina and the London bombing are going to be looked upon as important events in the emerging illustration of how different communication systems affect the way people report and receive the news," Fuerst said.

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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