Clancy and Margo DuBos always knew that Gambit Weekly would return. "There was never a nanosecond of doubt that we were coming back," explains Clancy, who, along with his wife, is co-owner of the New Orleans alternative weekly that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. "Never. Never."
It’s easy to understand why. The couple have spent most of their adult lives working at the paper, where they began as employees in the early 1980s. By June of 1987, Margo had moved through the ranks to become Gambit’s publisher, and four years later, she and Clancy purchased the paper from Landmark Communications. Margo reflects on her first years at the then burgeoning weekly with fondness: "Everybody did everything and we loved it. We just thought it was so cool that we were doing this job that was so important. The [readers] appreciated another paper in the community and another voice."
As Margo describes it, the initial years at Gambit were characterized by "a lot of needs and not a lot of people." It took a great deal of tenacity and ingenuity to lift the paper to the level of success it maintained prior to that late August day when Katrina made landfall. But with nearly two and a half decades invested in the publication, even a catastrophic natural disaster would do little to discourage the DuBoses from returning to what had become their life’s work. "We’re about to celebrate our 25th anniversary [at the paper]. How could I work that hard and get the company where it is and walk away from that? It was just unfathomable to me to try and comprehend," says Margo.
Hurricane Katrina may have left Gambit’s Mid-City office submerged under more than two feet of water, but on November 1, the award-winning paper will be back in print.
The DuBoses never anticipated the devastation that Katrina wrought. Just two days before the storm, they spent the afternoon with employees busily taking the customary precautions they’d made for the many hurricanes they had faced in year’s past. Equipment was unplugged, computers and office machines were wrapped in garbage bags, items on the floor were lifted to desktops, and garbage was carried out to the street.
It would take more than a week after the storm to make it back to the office to assess the damage. After securing a pass, Clancy, along with Gambit’s controller Gary DiGiovanni, made the first trip in escorted by the National Guard. A raised foundation partially saved the one-story building from the 6.5 feet of water that flooded its Mid-City location. Still, more than two feet of floodwater consumed it.
Preparations made before the storm, however, partially paid off. Many computers, which sat on desktops above the flood line, were salvaged and transported to an office space in Baton Rouge. The newspaper’s bound archives were damp, but also fared reasonably well. Larger equipment, like copy machines, didn’t.
The company’s paper trail also succumbed to water damage and mold. Margo recounts her experience in attempting to retrieve what she could during a later visit: "It was just like a science experiment with every window shut tight and water just sitting in there. … We really didn’t have anything but paper and it turned to complete mush. My file cabinets — the ones I could get open — weren’t covered in water, but in this white cotton [mold]." She left Gambit headquarters with only three boxes, filled mostly with knick knacks.
Getting in touch with employees following the hurricane posed an even greater challenge. Local phone and cellular networks were useless for weeks after the storm, so the DuBoses relied in part on the help of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN), which constructed a message board for employees on its Web site. Two weeks after Katrina, most of the alt-weekly’s staff — scattered throughout the U.S. — was accounted for. The rest would make contact soon after.
All the while, the DuBoses kept close watch on the progress of the city cleanup and recovery. "Clancy and I were looking everyday at where the city was and what condition it was in, trying to assess what it meant to us as a company," says Margo. Resolute about getting the business back up and running, the couple divvied up responsibilities. Margo, who serves as the paper’s publisher, would take on the production plans, while Clancy, who is the company chairman and also a lawyer, would oversee building repairs and insurance claims.
Nearly a month after the hurricane, they called a staff meeting for those who could attend at a temporary office space at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Ten of the paper’s 49 employees met, using most of the time to reconnect and share stories about the evacuation. It was the day before Hurricane Rita was scheduled to strike the Gulf Coast. In the weeks following Katrina, plans would continue to evolve.
Six weeks after the storm, Gambit is well on its way to reestablishing itself. A new temporary office space has been secured in Metairie, just four miles from the business’ permanent location. Computers have been moved in, assessed for damage and put in working order, and the first full staff meeting was held on Monday. Things will have to move slowly, but Margo says she anticipates the unique energy of a newsroom that’s just beginning to come to life. "A lot of people are saying that we have to start all over. We don’t have to start all over. People know who we are and they appreciate what Gambit has done. It’s kind of like going back to your roots and getting that wonderful feeling again," she explains. Margo imagines Gambit functioning as it did during the paper’s early days when the budget was smaller, and employees shared in responsibilities across departmental lines. "There was just a lot of collaboration no matter what department you were in. If you had a great idea for production, then even though you were in the advertising department, it was, ‘That’s great. Why don’t you do it?’"
Indeed, life inside the Gambit office will be quite different than it was prior to Katrina. Perhaps the biggest change will be that less than half of the paper’s former employees will return to work as a result of personal decisions as well as fiscal considerations. Displaced by the storm, some staff members have made the difficult decision to move on. "There are some who will not be able to come back, but that’s understandable," explains Clancy, "A catastrophe of the proportions of Katrina throws people in the air. People have to adjust, and they are adjusting."
One such staff member is Michael Tisserand, who served as the paper’s editor for seven years and plans to relocate to the Chicago area with his family. "It’s really hard to leave and I feel like my future is still very bound up in the future of the city." Tisserand says. "I’m going to try and contribute in whatever way I can to the literature of New Orleans and its reclamation."
Since the storm Tisserand has been living with friends in Carencro, La., and has written "Submerged," an AAN-commissioned series on the evacuee experience. He will provide support to the paper during its transition and hopes to have the chance to contribute as a writer as well. "The future of Gambit, just like the future of New Orleans, is really important to me even if I’m not there on a day-to-day basis," he says.
Initially, the page count and circulation will be much smaller than the pre-Katrina version of the paper, which averaged approximately 50,000 copies at 80 pages, not counting special sections. With fewer readers and advertisers, the paper will be scaled back while the company regains momentum. The paper’s business plan will largely rely on how the city reshapes itself. For instance, publication drop points and advertising accounts will need to be audited to find out what companies are reopening, and when. "Gradually we’ll rebuild Gambit as the city rebuilds," says Sandy Stein, who will retain her position as the publication’s advertising director.
The management team doesn’t expect much change in reader demographics, though they acknowledge that it’s still too early to foresee the ultimate character of the city’s population. "Historically, a wide cross section of New Orleans has picked up and read the Gambit. I’m sure that’s going to continue. … I just can’t tell you what that city is going to look like yet," says Tisserand.
The editorial focus of the paper will remain the same, with a blend of in-depth local reporting, political analysis and entertainment coverage. "There’s so many stories. It’s just a matter of what we want to put in the paper and what we have space for," says Margo. A significant portion of the paper’s content will focus on the city’s rebuilding efforts, though the coverage is hardly a departure from the types of stories that Gambit is well known for. "Every issue we’ve covered in New Orleans has been affected and changed by Hurricane Katrina, whether it’s justice issues, housing issues, education issues or arts and cultural issues. Every story in New Orleans is going to be a hurricane story … for a while, and maybe for a good long while," says Tisserand.
The paper’s financial recovery is progressing. Insurance claims, hampered by the city’s damaged communication system and the deluge of policy holders attempting to collect, are moving slowly, though the DuBoses anticipate being able to recoup funds to cover equipment loss and other damages. They’re also exploring options for loans and grants set up for businesses affected by the hurricane.
Business in the newsweekly’s sales department is already showing signs of life. Margo has sold two full-page ads that will be printed in the November 1 issue. And Stein has been steadily receiving e-mail inquiries about how to advertise in the paper. In general, Stein projects that the storm will open up an entirely new base of advertisers that typically wouldn’t opt to market themselves in the paper — businesses related to construction, law and health care. She regards the new earning potential with cautious optimism, "It will be gradual, it will be slow at first, but I’m really encouraged by the response."
The DuBoses hope to have the paper back on track by early next year — a goal that would have no possibility of realization without the help of AAN and its member papers, they say. Just days after the storm, the organization established a relief fund to provide financial assistance to Gambit staffers. Offers from member papers to help with logistics, technical support and other needs began to trickle in. "Without the help, support, prayers, encouragement and assistance of all of the people at AAN headquarters and member papers, [re-launching Gambit] would not be possible," says Clancy.
Eventually, the DuBoses plan to move the company back to its office on Bienville Street, and hope that the paper’s staff, distribution and page count will continually expand with its budget. Until then, things like commuting from their temporary home in New Roads — more than two hours away from the Metairie office — will be a necessary part of the DuBoses’ regular routine. "In the big scheme of things, it’s not that big of a deal. It will be hard, but it has to be done," says Margo. She sees the return of Gambit as an integral element in the revitalization of the city that it calls home. "New Orleans is like no other place, and I feel a sense that I need to be a part of my city coming back."
Though he’ll be moving on, Tisserand has no doubts about the paper’s ability to sustain itself. "Gambit will be fine. Gambit will make the transition and I’m quite sure will come out the stronger for it."