Facing Isaac, Times-Picayune looks to digital to cover hurricanes

Rain from Hurricane Isaac falls over Bourbon Street on August 29, 2012 in New Orleans, La.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune has gone through some massive changes since it won a series of Pulitzer's for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Starting in October the paper will only print three issues a week. Host Kai Ryssdal talks with the director of content of NOLA.com about what these changes mean for the coverage of Hurricane Isaac and future storms.

"One of the things that happened in Katrina is we became one of the most smartphone-intensive cities in America because a lot of people didn't even replace their land lines after the storm," says James O'Byrne, director of content at NOLA.com.

O'Byrne says that in times of trouble, the digital space will become even more important for people to be able to communicate.

"It's important to remember that in the most critical hours probably in the city's history, we didn't have a printed paper. But what we did have was great journalists doing great journalism. I think you don't need news print to do great journalism. In times of hurricanes and crisis like this where power is limited, transportation is difficult, the digital space is even more vital and has become the way that people find out information. I think going into the future that will not change," he says.

Kai Ryssdal: You want to know what's going on down in New Orleans up to the minute, you could go to CNN, I guess. But you can only watch so many reporters standing in a hurricane before it gets stale. Or you could pull up the website of the New Orleans Times Picayune, NOLA.com, and see not just what reporters are telling you -- 500,000 people out of power or the governor talking about intentionally breaching some levees -- but also what residents of New Orleans are experiencing. NOLA.com has become kind of a public repository for up to the minute information about the storm -- pictures, tweets. James O'Byrne is the director of content for NOLA.com. Welcome to the program.

James O'Byrne: Good to be here.

Ryssdal: It's kind of interesting that in the middle of the chaos that must be New Orleans today, people have the time to pick up their phone or take out their iPad or whatever it is and take a picture and have the presence of mind to send it along.

O'Byrne: One of the things that happened in Katrina is we became one of the most smartphone-intensive cities in America because a lot of people didn't even replace their land lines after the storm. We saw last night the highest activity on the site was actually after 9 o'clock when we saw a huge burst in social media activity. That's when the weather got really bad and that's when the power started going out, so that's when people were participating in these conversations and we saw that activity continue all through the night -- with very little let-up actually. There was a bit of a lag between 3 and 5 a.m., but after that everybody back at it.

Ryssdal: On your Twitter feed, between the paper and what you're seeing there, what are you seeing people looking for? Are they looking for assistance? Are they looking for food? Are they looking for moral support I guess maybe, huh?

O'Byrne: I think partly they're looking for information and partly they're intensely interested in sharing information. The social media space, the instinct is to share here's what's happening to me or here's what's happening in my neighborhood. And because smartphones have become so powerful, we see videos, we see photographs, and we see texts and tweets that just tell us in real time as conditions change what's going on around the city.

Ryssdal: What happens though, Mr. O'Byrne, if the power is out in New Orleans for I don't know, three, four, five days. I mean, that could be, right?

O'Byrne: Could be, yes. As soon as the weather is calm enough to actually deliver papers, we will print wherever we need to print and disseminate those papers to our readers.

Ryssdal: And what does it do, then, to the social media part of this equation, to the online part of the equation?

O'Byrne: It's an interesting question. I think what happened is people got really resilient after Katrina. Most people have power inverters for their cars, so they can charge their cell phones and as long as they have their cell phones and as long as they have a way to charge their cell phones, as long as they have gasoline, then we'll figure out a way to communicate with each other through social media.

Ryssdal: Yeah. This paper -- actually not the paper -- the organization that is the Times-Picayune was, if you ask people who were there, sort of the life line. It was kind of the soul of New Orleans in Katrina. Do you feel the same way about that this time?

O'Byrne: I certainly do. It's important to remember that in the most critical hours probably in the city's history, we didn't have a printed paper. But what we did have was great journalists doing great journalism. I think you don't need news print to do great journalism. In times of hurricanes and crisis like this where power is limited, transportation is difficult, the digital space is even more vital and has become the way that people find out information. I think going into the future that will not change.

Ryssdal: James O'Byrne, he runs the website for the Times-Picayune down in New Orleans. It's NOLA.com if you want to check it out. Mr. O'Byrne, thanks very much for your time.

O'Byrne: It's my pleasure, Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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