For nearly a year, newsrooms have mostly sat empty because of the pandemic. Staffers have been working from home and not seeing many of their coworkers in person. But over the past week in Texas, as millions lacked power and water, local journalists sought refuge in each others’ homes or even in their abandoned newsrooms.
Manny García, editor of the Austin American-Statesman, said that their newsroom has been nicknamed “Camp Statesman” and he has been using his own four-wheel drive vehicle — driving on the city’s icy streets — to pick up and drop off his journalists there.
Local news has been crucial for disseminating information over the past week as a rare winter storm swept through Texas with freezing temperatures that triggered power outages for millions. At least 38 people have died nationwide from cold weather conditions since last week.
But just as Texans are left without power, so too are the journalists trying to inform them. The past year has made media workers experts in producing newspapers and running websites from their dining room tables and living room couches.
Journalists in Texas are no stranger to reporting during crises. Dallas Morning News managing editor Keith Campbell said his newsroom has “covered hurricanes, heat waves and tornadoes over the years, but no weather story quite like this.”
Working without power has been an extreme challenge.
“It’s been absolutely one of the most taxing situations that I’ve been involved in over my career, and I’ve covered hurricanes as an editor and as a reporter,” García said. “But the staff has been resilient.”
In a letter to readers on Monday, the Statesman said staffers were “charging devices in the car, sending in stories and news tips as their batteries and phone service allows.”
Same is true in other newsrooms across Texas. Randi Stevenson, digital executive producer of the San Antonio Express-News, said some producers on her team of eight were forced to take days off because they didn’t have access to the internet.
“We operating with a bare bones staff for a couple days,” she said.
Stacy-Marie Ishmael, editorial director of The Texas Tribune, said one of her first decisions as the power crisis took hold was to task the newsroom’s events team with disaster response management. That included creating a spreadsheet to track where employees were and their circumstances. At one point every one of the four columns on the spreadsheet — power, heat, WiFi, water — was red, meaning they were lacking these resources, or left blank for unknown.
“There’s often an instinct in newsrooms that’s the news first, the news first, the news first. But then it’s like this ‘who’s going to do the news for you?’” Ishmael said. “If you’re not making sure that all of your folks are able to do the things you’re going to call upon them for, I think you’re failing at your job.”
Steve Coffman, president and editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, said he has only experienced two power outages in his home. One lasted six to seven hours and the other was less than two hours. But his employees have not been so fortunate. In fact, one editor temporarily moved in with him and his wife.
Some newsrooms, including the Houston Chronicle and the Statesman, were unable to publish Tuesday morning editions due to the power issues.
“Even during [2017’s] Hurricane Harvey, our facility never lost power and we never stopped production of our print edition,” the Chronicle said in a message to subscribers, “but each weather emergency brings its own twists.”
A surge in traffic
Houston Chronicle editor Steve Riley said earlier this week that the website was “seeing a surge in traffic. People are hungry for information, and our staff is working hard to provide it.”
Wednesday was the second highest traffic day for the San Antonio Express-News, Stevenson said. The highest remains March 23, the day the mayor of San Antonio announced the city’s stay home order due to the pandemic.
But with the power crisis, not every Texan has been able to access information on news sites even if they would like to. Jennifer Hefty, content strategy analyst at USA Today Network, said one editor told her she had been texting a friend news updates. Another editor said if they unplug their phone it quickly runs out of battery due to the freezing temperatures, making browsing social media or going directly to a news site is impossible.
That editor’s workaround inspired the launch of the Statesman’s new texting service, through a platform called Subtext, on Thursday. More than 700 people already have signed up for the alerts and they also have the ability to text questions, Hefty said.
“The messages that come in are often a ‘thank you, thank you for keeping the community informed,’” Hefty said. “One that broke my heart last night was somebody who said, ‘I can’t sleep because I’m so worried about my pipes. What am I supposed to do?’”
The Texas Tribune also launched a similar service on Thursday with Subtext.
Newsrooms have been focused on providing both service journalism, answering questions through the Subtext service or writing explanatory articles for their websites.
Among the Texas Tribune’s strong reporting efforts this week was one article that focused on addressing misinformation. Published February 16, it bore a straightforward headline: “No, frozen wind turbines aren’t the main culprit for Texas’ power outages.” Texas Tribune’s journalism is free to republish, and that story was picked up the Houston Chronicle, the Dallas Morning News and other sites in and outside of Texas.
Newsrooms also have been keeping up with watchdog reporting such as the Statesman’s investigation into grid operator ERCOT misleading the public on its preparedness.
Emily Ramshaw, CEO of the 19th*, a nonprofit newsroom covering the intersection of gender, politics and policy, has also been hamstrung by the power crisis. Ramshaw is based in Austin along with about half of her 26 staffers. But in an interview, she brushed the attention off herself and championed the local newsrooms on the front lines, notably The Texas Tribune where she was previously editor in chief.
“I really feel that both elected officials and appointed bodies failed to adequately or effectively communicate with the public in what was truly a natural disaster. Thank God for The Texas Tribune and other local media which filled the gap,” Ramshaw said. “The reason we knew even a fraction of what we knew was because of them, not because of the people who are elected and appointed to inform us.”
By Friday power had returned for millions, but Texans are still dealing with overwhelmed water systems that could affect much of the population.
“We are thrilled the sun is shining and that the temperature is above the freezing mark,” The Dallas Morning News’ Campbell said. “The staff is tired but still at it, and will be for a while — there will be lots more to cover in the coming weeks.”
CNN’s Brian Stelter contributed reporting.