Publishing despite Hell AND High Water

By Melago, Carolyn | American Journalism Review, June 1997 | Go to article overview

Publishing despite Hell AND High Water


Melago, Carolyn, American Journalism Review


Grand Forks Herald editors Andy Bradford and Brad Dokken wondered why they were even going to St. Paul. Flooding of the Red River had transformed their city into a ghost town. Rising waters had chased them from their homes, leaving them sleepless for days. The Herald's presses lay under 54 feet of murky water and the newsroom ultimately was left gutted by a day of fires.

They knew their mission was to continue publishing the 118-year-old newspaper by borrowing the production facilities of their fellow Knight-Ridder paper, the St. Paul Pioneer Press. But they had no idea how they were going to accomplish it.

"You're just kind of numb because so much is happening," Dokken says.

Despite the numbness and chaos, the Grand Forks Herald hasn't missed a day of publication since record floods that began on April 19 left the North Dakota city of 50,000 uninhabitable. The paper's tireless staff, working across two states, is quick to credit Pioneer Press employees and a rural North Dakota school for making what they had deemed impossible possible.

Only a third of the Herald's press run had been completed early that Saturday morning when water started rushing into the paper's three buildings. A stop-gap newsroom was set up at the University of North Dakota, where roving reporters checked in, and frantic editors transmitted copy 300 miles away to the Pioneer Press in Minnesota.

As the Herald's surrogate publisher, the Pioneer Press' first hurdle was solving the puzzle of converting Herald copy from an IBM system to a format readable by QuarkXPress, the Press' Macintosh-driven software. But before Bradford and Dokken even reached St. Paul to oversee the inevitable production obstacles, the Press' paginators had scanned the Herald's flag, matched its typefaces and built comparable style sheets.

"They had just done an incredible amount of behind-the-scenes work," Dokken says. "It was really the first good thing that happened to us in a few days."

About a half-dozen copy and news editors, along with several photo and graphic editors, arrived at the Pioneer Press during the days and weeks following the flood. Other Knight-Ridder papers, including the Charlotte Observer, Miami Herald and San Jose Mercury News, also donated journalists. They all had to divide their thinking and energy between the Pioneer Press and the Herald, which were to be printed back-to-back on the same presses.

Pioneer Press Senior Editor Dee-Dee Strickland says that even though all the journalists managed to mesh, giving Grand Forks editors control over the production of their own paper was a high priority.

"They've all been sort of absorbed into this one big team," she says, "but we've been careful to have Grand Forks people drive the production, to make decisions and keep their separate identities."

Back in Grand Forks, floodwaters kept firefighters from extinguishing a huge downtown blaze that engulfed the Herald's newsroom, destroying more than a century's worth of yellowed clippings stored in the Herald's library. If that wasn't enough to create a cloud of hopelessness over Herald staffers trying to salvage their lives and jobs at the same time, continued flooding forced them to abandon their makeshift campus newsroom to relocate again to a one-story school in nearby Manvel, North Dakota.

The Herald staff settled in the Manvel school's library, taking over 25 Macintoshes, a music room, several trailers and the health classroom. Working in the same building as 205 kindergarteners through eighth graders rattled staffers at first, but eventually they learned to coexist.

"It's like parallel universes," says Herald Editor Mike Jacobs. "The students and teachers are going about their education mission, and we're going about our information mission. …

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