By Teri Saylor
Note: This article was first published in Publishers’ Auxiliary, the monthly publication of the National Newspaper Association
When North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory interrupted a soggy North Carolina State University football game to declare a state of emergency on October 8, circumstances got very real for residents and businesses in low-lying areas from the coastal plain to the Sandhill region in the south central part of the state. Kyle Stephens, a group publisher who oversees five weekly northeastern North Carolina newspapers in the Cooke Communications family was perched in the stands at Carter-Finley Stadium in an unrelenting downpour with his father and sister watching the NC State Wolfpack battle it out against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on a field that more closely resembled a slip and slide than a turf-covered gridiron.
Weather forecasters had been predicting Hurricane Matthew for weeks, but hurricanes rarely adhere to predictions, and despite the fact that it was forecast to make a sharp turn and head out to sea without making landfall, it headed inland and stalled, dumping up to 15 inches of rain in some areas.
Four newspapers struggled mightily to fulfill their mission of publishing no matter what, and here are their stories.
The Times Leader, Grifton, N.C.
Kyle Stephens graduated from East Carolina University in 2002 with a degree in sports marketing and immediately landed a job selling ads for three small newspapers then owned by Cox Communications (now Cooke Communications) in eastern North Carolina. Reporting to Tim Holt, general manager of The Daily Reflector in Greenville, Cooke’s North Carolina flagship newspaper, Stephens was promoted to advertising director, then to publisher. Last April, he took over as publisher of two additional weeklies, bringing his total to five. The newspapers are The Times Leader in Grifton, The Farmville Enterprise, The Williamston Enterprise, the Bertie Ledger-Advance of Windsor, and The Standard Laconic of Snow Hill.
The Times Leader and the Bertie Ledger Advance were the only two newspapers in the group that flooded in Hurricane Matthew.
Stephens is headquartered in Grifton, a tiny town of about 2,000 residents. The town sits on the banks of Contentnea Creek, a picturesque waterway popular with canoers and kayakers and other outdoor enthusiasts. The creek overflowed after Hurricane Floyd in 1999, flooding the town and leaving six feet of water in the Times Leader’s tiny building.
When the state’s governor warned residents not to travel east of Raleigh, Stephens who was still watching the football game, left immediately. He knew Hurricane Matthew could be bad. Here is his story:
I made it back probably around 4 o’clock that afternoon, and at my house, the water had gotten into some of my duct work, so Sunday my wife and I cleaned up around the house, and we heard about how all the rivers and creeks were going to start rising, so we went over to the Times Leader and got all the computers and other equipment and put it in the back of my truck and put our bound volumes and other important things on top shelves. I sent up the computers in my living room at home on Monday morning, and my reporter Luke Simonds and I put out the Times Leader from my living room on Monday. It was very stressful.
The Times Leader is published along with the Farmville Enterprise and The Standard Laconic on Wednesdays. We bumped the deadline up from Tuesday at 5 p.m. to Monday at 5 p.m. The Daily Reflector, which prints them, wanted to get them delivered. At this point they were telling us we might not be able to make it out because all access points were going to flood.
The papers were printed in Greenville and delivered to the post office, but it was Friday before the subscribers received them. I couldn’t even get to my Grifton office for a week. We had three feet of water in the building. Most of what we lost, we didn’t need, but we did lose the furniture. All of the other things, like old photos, negatives, things like that had already been lost during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, so what they had in the building was just what they had not lost in 1999 and what they had accumulated since then.
At the Bertie-Ledger Advance, (about 65 miles north of Grifton), we had about nine inches of water inside that office. We basically did the same thing there that we did in Grifton. A couple of employees went over and got all the computers out before it flooded. They are working out of the Williamston Enterprise office now. I’m working on a card table at the Farmville Enterprise. I would say it is a safe bet we’ll be back in our newspapers by the end of the year.
I give a lot of compliments to my staff. Angela (Harne), my group editor and Brenda Monty, a staff writer, moved in with the Chamber of Commerce director in Farmville for a few days after the Hurricane. We didn’t know if they’d be able to get here from their homes, so they brought a bag, tooth brush, change of clothes and stayed in town. I thought that was pretty cool.
Financially, this has been a good year for us. Some of my most successful products are the community magazines we produce. This flood reinforced the lessons I have learned throughout my time in the business. You have to publish the newspaper regardless of circumstances. There’s no excuse. You do what you have to do to get the newspaper out.
The Daily Reflector, Greenville, N.C.
To the naked eye, Greenville appeared to be recovering nicely from the flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew about 10 days after the storm. The town, home to 89,000 residents and East Carolina University, sits alongside the Tar River, which crested a full week after the hurricane blew past the state. While the newspaper itself was not directly impacted, the loss of a mailroom employee who was killed while seeking higher ground during the height of the storm has left general manager Tim Holt and his staff shaken. The Daily Reflector is Cooke’s flagship North Carolina newspaper. On the night of the hurricane, Holt was watching out for flashfloods that night and monitoring a small group of mailroom staff who were working that day. One employee, who made it home safely ventured out late at night with her husband to head for higher ground, got caught in a flash flood and drowned.
“This one really hit home,” said Holt, who has been with the paper since 1988. He went on to describe how the newspaper coped and kept its readers informed during what he called the second worst flood in Pitt County’s history. Hurricane Floyd still tops the horror chart:
Our building was never in jeopardy. Our production facility is north of the flood plain, but all four of the access points have bridges, and if the flooding closed all of the bridges, we would not be able to get to the newspaper. In the end, two of the four bridges closed completely. A third bridge closed one lane. The other one remained open.
Our main problem was that many of our employees were directly affected by the flooding and couldn’t make it to work. The first week after the storm, the Daily Reflector combined its Tuesday and Wednesday newspapers and its Thursday and Friday newspapers, following a contingency plan that was in place.
The carriers made it to our building, but they were unable to make it to some parts of Greenville, and our main concern was for the safety of our employees. So we put out radio spots to communicate with our readers and the community with details on the flooding. Our readers depend on information in our newspaper for making decisions. We also kept the website current, and we noticed an increased use of the site with lots of unique visitors.
In North Carolina, Cooke Communications prints nine weekly newspapers and three dailies at our Greenville facility. Our contingency plan took those papers into consideration and the timing of the storm was in their favor. We got all of them printed and delivered to the post office.
Our senior management team and production team has been there since Hurricane Floyd, so we have a large group of senior managers and high level managers who have experience, and our folks responded in the way you hope you team will respond in a crisis: to work hard; work as a team, and keep our priorities in order.
Getting the newspaper out in times of hardship is critical for the public who depend on us. The newspaper provides a sense of normalcy, and assurances that everything is going to be okay.
The advice I would give is to take time in a moment of calm to determine what you would do if it is not so calm, and bring people together as a team rather than in a moment of panic.
The News Reporter, Whiteville, NC
When Hurricane Matthew hit, Les High, editor of his family-owned, twice weekly newspaper, The News Reporter of Whiteville, and his wife Becky were in Chapel Hill enjoying parents’ weekend with their daughters who are both students at UNC’s School of Media and Journalism. They waited until the rain stopped on Sunday, Oct. 9 before heading back to Whiteville, located in the southeastern corner of North Carolina near the South Carolina state line. Most of the roads that would take them home had washed out, but they found a way to get around the trouble spots, and managed to make it home. The Lumber River, which flows past Whiteville, flooded the downtown area, but stopped about two blocks from the newspaper’s office. High describes a wild scene when he got home:
We knew right away this was going to be a major news story. Unfortunately, power was out across the entire county, the newspaper included. So we called the staff from the road, and they were already working on stories.
In my 55 years, from the time I was a child growing up at this newspaper, we’ve never had a day that we missed printing the paper, and this was the first day we just were not able to do that. Through ice storms, hurricanes, power outages; we’ve always been able to print here. I called Patrick Noonan (operations director) at the Fayetteville Observer (located 56 miles away), and we arranged to have the paper printed there on Monday morning. The newsroom was at my house. I have a small generator and we were able to operate the lights and the refrigerator, and the reporters were able to work there. Becky made spaghetti for us on the gas grill, and we were writing stories and laying out the paper on a lap top.
We worked until about 2:30 a.m. We didn’t have Internet or cell service to send the pages to Fayetteville, so Jonathan Caprell, our graphics designer and IT guy loaded up. We had two external hard drives – one we took with us and the other we left behind in case we didn’t make it. We got in my jeep, and we were determined to make it to Fayetteville even though conditions were bad. We were almost there and thought we were going to be fine, but we hit a detour where the road had washed out, so we took back roads that I have never heard of, like Chicken Foot Road, County Line Road at 6 o’clock in the morning. It was pitch dark. We were coming around curves and having to slow down hard to avoid water covering the roads. We managed to get there right on time at 7:00 a.m.
We had 10 inserts for Monday’s newspaper, one of which was a 64-page Belk’s book. My sister, Stuart Rogers and her husband got up at 4:30 a.m. to rent a big U-Haul but the bed of the truck didn’t meet the height of our loading ramp so Stuart and her husband jury-rigged a ramp and spent two hours loading inserts into the back of the U-Haul to take to Fayetteville for inserting.
Our mailing machine was also down, and as soon as the papers came in from Fayetteville, we got a little team together and put more than 2,000 mailing labels on newspapers by hand. We peeled them off and put them on each newspaper.
The power came back on Monday night after the hurricane. In addition to the News Reporter, we print six to eight other newspapers here, and somehow, we got them all printed.
One thing I think we did a really good job with was ramping up our presence on our website. We made sure we had two complete updates: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. We covered a lot of different things that people needed to know, and we did this on social media as well. Then as important news came up during the day, we’d have ongoing brief updates. I think we did a really good job of keeping people informed in that way.
We are in another phase of using our website and the paper to inform readers how to get help, such as where food distribution sites are or how to get in touch with FEMA. This will be an evolving story for a number of weeks.
We realized how dependent people are on social media, digital media and how important that was as part of our process. We didn’t have any coverage for 12 to 20 hours because everything was down, and so we were doing updates by phone. I called one of my daughters at UNC to help me post an important story because our cell service and data service was so bad and this critical story needed to get out. So I called her and she posted it to our website and social media from Chapel Hill.
You know, we live in these communities, and we have an important job to do. Most of our staff has worked here for decades, and they know our mantra. We’re going to get the newspaper out, whatever it takes.
Our reporter, Jeff Weaver, had 14 inches of water in his house, and an alligator that had washed up in his back yard was swimming around. It was a wild scene, and he had no power, but he was still working on stories. Clara Cartrette, a reporter who has been here almost 55 years had broken her hip some time ago, and had just returned to work. She was using a cane to walk downtown to do stories because she doesn’t want to do them by phone. Another reporter, Alan Turner, just had bladder cancer surgery and was out doing stories while wearing a catheter bag.
That’s the kind of people we have in community newspapers across the country. They know we have an important job to do and they’re going to stop at nothing to get it done.
The Robesonian, Lumberton, N.C.
Rick Thomason, publisher of The Robesonian of Lumberton is thankful for reporter Mike Gellatly, who immediately shut off the breakers in the newspaper office just hours before the nearby Lumber River overflowed its banks, flooding the entire town and most of the county. Lumberton is situated along I-95, about 30 miles north of Dillon, S.C. and is the county seat of Robeson County, where 33 percent of its 43,106 residents are considered to be living in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates. When the Lumber River flooded after Hurricane Matthew, water seeped into the Robesonian’s building, rising to about 15 inches before draining out about 24 hours later.
The Robesonian is part of the Civitas group, and Thomason had been publisher there just six months before Hurricane Matthew struck. He describes a logistical nightmare:
For the better part of a week after the hurricane, most of the roads were washed out, and there was only one way in and one way out of town. When the power went out and the water started rising around, our editor, Donnie Douglas got out of town. And I know that doesn’t sound like the right thing to do, but ultimately it was. He ended up just outside of Charlotte, got a hotel room and stayed there for nine days. Donnie knows everybody in town, has everybody’s phone number, and he was able to stay in contact with everybody in this town that we needed to contact. We embedded our managing editor at the town’s hurricane command center. They allowed her in there, and pretty much gave her the run of the place. We had another reporter that was out of town, but she was working, making phone calls. We had plenty of folks sending us photos.
All of our desks, the computer towers that were on the floor, cubicles are ruined. We had to have four and a half feet of drywall cut out throughout our building. All the carpet was taken out. A few things you see sitting around on pallets are what was saved. The contents in the bottom two drawers of our filing cabinets are gone. We lost about 50 bound volumes of our archives. We saved what we could, but it wasn’t much.
We’ve got a staff working from our sister papers in Elizabethtown and Rockingham, all spread out. The reporters are working out of their homes. We host a graphics hub here that serves our entire company and employs 19 people. It was flooded and all those people are working from their homes.
I normally print five of our company’s papers here, but now they are being printed in Newberry, S.C. And Mount Airy, N.C. This flood has turned us from an afternoon newspaper to a morning newspaper because of changing delivery schedules and production times.
The logistics have been a nightmare. Pages aren’t done here. They are paginated from a hub in Ohio, and we’re dealing with re-routing pages. So we’ve got reporters here, and you’ve got the pagination hub up there. We do that every day, but with the flood, we’ve had to change deadlines, and that changes deadlines for stories, for graphics, for ads and for pagination. We’re printing in two separate places that are not used to printing us.
We lost thousands of dollars’ worth of inserts in the flood. Tens of thousands. Maybe more than that. They were just ruined. But what we had and what we could get to, we did our dead level best to get into the papers. The inserts were still coming to us here, and we had to rent trucks and drivers to move them, we had to look ahead and decide which of them were supposed to go to Newberry and which of them were supposed to go to Mt. Airy where the papers were being printed.
The water came within an inch of getting in our press motor and the press is okay. I’m trying to find office space to put the newsroom and the ad staff back together at least, and eventually we’ll be able to move back into our building.
Because of the flood, we did not print for a week. We missed seven issues, and we’re a six-day paper. But we did publish the e-edition, and that actually worked out very well. We were updating the website all day and all night, almost like a wire service.
Readers have been exceptionally kind to us. Our Facebook numbers have been off the charts. We’ve gotten tons of positive feedback. Social media is working the way it should for journalism. People are asking a good questions that lead to a lot of good stories.
Civitas, our parent company, has been terrific. Very supportive. The gentleman that handles the insurance was here for the better part of the week. He is taking the burden off of me in dealing with the insurance, the restoration, the contractors so I can concentrate on trying to keep us as whole as we can be right now and trying to get the staff back whole as best we can and finding a space to work. This staff did really good work. They worked some long hours, and at times like this you find out what kind of staff you have. I’ve been real proud of the folks we have here, not only the news folks but the entire team. The ad staff has been hustling. The production crew, has worked under the worst conditions. Five of our staff lost their homes.
Advertising is down, and it’s going to be down for a while because you’ve got a lot of businesses that are going to be down. Until we have drinkable water again, the restaurants won’t open. It’s going to be a long haul for this town and this county. This is probably the poorest county in the state, so that was not a good starting point before this happened.
This has been the most overwhelming thing I have ever tackled in this business and I’m in my 37th year. I’ve been through hurricanes before, and snow storms and shootings and stabbings and hostage situations, but nothing like this.