In Harm’s Way, Alt-Weeklies Weather Hurricanes

“There was a real fear this could be, in the words of Fred Sanford, ‘the big one,'” says Michael Tisserand, editor of Gambit Weekly in New Orleans, La.

Hurricane Ivan was steaming for the Big Easy on Sept. 16, but turned toward Alabama and Mississippi at the last minute. Upon hearing the news, Tisserand and his family returned home, having evacuated two days previous. “The storm shook a couple of pine cones out of one tree, but that’s about it,” he says.

It wasn’t the big one. But residents and business owners in New Orleans had taken no chances, closing and securing homes and shops. The staff of Gambit, for its part, prepared to publish in the storm — out of an employee’s home, if necessary.

Gambit is one of seven AAN member papers located in areas affected by the hurricanes that have pounded Florida and surrounding states since August. Charley touched down on Aug. 13, Frances on Sept. 5 and Ivan on Sept. 16. Despite the conditions, the alt-weeklies haven’t missed an issue.

New Times Broward-Palm Beach closed its Ft. Lauderdale offices from Sept. 3-6 when Frances rolled through town. Staffers were nonetheless able to maintain a normal publishing schedule without having to carry out an evacuation plan in which operations would be moved to Miami New Times.

With a high statistical chance of being hit by a hurricane during the summer, nearly all Miami businesses have an evacuation plan in place. Miami New Times is no exception, having instituted one after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. This year, however, no evacuation proved necessary.

Weekly Planet has papers in Tampa and Sarasota. For Charley, the Tampa office followed evacuation procedures — covering computers, shifting deadlines and closing the office. Staffers, however, worked through Frances. David Warner, editor of both papers, says, “Frances came across the state so slowly, it was almost easy to forget about it.” That is, until Frances flooded the office lobby.

In Jacksonville, Frances drenched the city while 70 mph winds damaged some of Folio Weekly’s four-county coverage area. The paper lost electricity for a few days. “You really start to realize how uninhabitable Florida is without power,” laughs editor Anne Schindler.

In Orlando, the eye of Charley passed directly overhead. Despite this, Orlando Weekly printed 50,000+ papers without a hitch. Editor Bob Whitby admits, however, that delivering that week’s issue was difficult given the felled trees and other damage in the paper’s three-county coverage area.

Advertisers batten down the purse strings

Much of Gambit Weekly’s ad revenue is from small, local businesses, says Tisserand. Many of those businesses were closed for the storm, but it remains to be seen if such closings will decrease ad sales.

Weekly Planet ad director Natalie Chiszar reports that advertising for the Tampa and Sarasota papers was minimally affected. Without seeing audit figures, she estimates ad revenue to be down five to eight percent since Frances, translating to perhaps three pages per issue.

Frances struck Tampa over the Labor Day weekend, and fear of its impact canceled concerts and other events, which cut into retail sales. Several restaurants and clubs in Ybor City — Tampa’s historic district — were without electricity for a week and lost business. Such setbacks might eventually cut into those businesses’ ad budgets, says Chiszar.

A good ad staff and some above-average revenue from recent issues — including the annual “Best of the Bay,” which was mostly planned and sold in advance of the hurricanes — are almost balancing out the losses, she explains. It also helps that ad reps are working with hard-hit business owners to plan affordable advertising over the long term.

During Charley’s approach, advertising fell off at Orlando Weekly. Local business owners wondered if they’d be standing afterwards, says Whitby. He did not have specific ad numbers, but noted that with two hurricanes hitting town in three weeks, “it was sort of an ongoing panic.”

Hurricanes inform editorial choices

Gambit’s content has been affected by Ivan, but only inasmuch as evacuation threw a wrench into the normal editorial process. Like other alt-weeklies in the path of the recent hurricanes, Gambit doesn’t intend to shift its focus exclusively to the storms.

New Times Broward-Palm Beach editor Chuck Strouse explains that his paper, which comes out on Tuesdays, was put to bed Sept. 2, the Thursday before Frances’ arrival.

On Sept. 4, a dozen of his reporters and photographers fanned out across the area. On Sept. 6, their interviews and photos were compiled into a 5,000-word hurricane feature and incorporated into the paper’s existing content. It was published on deadline.

“If you like news, there’s really not a lot that’s better than a hurricane,” jokes Strouse. “I am exceedingly proud of the way my staff performed. It’s hard to report on a daily story in a weekly paper.”

With Frances approaching, Miami New Times management transmitted its Sept. 8 paper to the printer early, then sent writers and photographers out with phones to search for stories. Managing editor Jean Carey explains that her paper didn’t publish much about the hurricane because its readers were already inundated with daily print and television news coverage.

She does, however, believe a weekly must somehow report immediately on “amazing events,” such as hurricanes. Ideas she’s considered are daily updates to the paper’s Web site or the establishment of a blog.

Folio Weekly also put its issue to bed early with Frances’ arrival looming. Schindler had her writers focus on odd stories the dailies weren’t covering, such as the evacuation of student dorms at the University of North Florida.

Orlando Weekly took a different tack in its coverage of Frances. “After all the media coverage of Charley, I’m not sure our position was to scream at people even more about the fact there was a hurricane,” says Whitby. So he and his staff focused on media coverage of the hurricane. They found that not one of the area’s seven Clear Channel radio stations had reporters in the field, electing instead to have DJs take calls from listeners.

Whitby has lately been considering an alt-weekly’s role in such situations. “Maybe our job is just to [say] to people, ‘You’ve had enough hurricane coverage. Here’s something else.'”

Ann Hinch is a freelance reporter based in Knoxville, Tenn.

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