AAs the horrific oil “spill” gushes toxins into the Gulf of Mexico, let’s remember the ultimate value of content: news organizations small and large keeping the story alive for communities, watch-dogging government and industry and connecting those who want to help — and need to vent.
Consider the work of St. Tammany News, covering the communities of Slidell, Covington and Mandeville in Louisiana. It came to be in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina blew flood waters from Lake Pontchartrain into the Slidell Sentry-News building’s first floor. The Sentry and the neighboring News Banner joined forces — and a short week later turned out a free, eight-page section with no ads to serve as “the voice for St. Tammany Parish.”
St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis, asked at what point he felt that his community was back and ready for rebuilding, “The day the local newspaper printed its first edition,” the St. Tammany web site notes.
And today, in the wake of the United States’ worst environmental disaster, the newspaper and its web site remain a community beacon through clean, concise reporting and impassioned opinion writing. It lauds Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser’s efforts to partially fund construction of island barriers to protect its vital marshes. An opinion piece spells out a community’s anguish over tortoise-like response from the federal government.
Though Louisiana state leaders submitted plans a month ago, there has been no official approval.
Wrote community activist Jeff Crouere on the St. Tammany News opinion page: “Nungesser is asking his parish council for $1 million to start the project and hire the necessary workers. Once completed, the sand barriers will be six feet high and extend for miles along the fragile coastline. This project may put Nungesser at odds with federal officials, but he is not concerned. He said, ‘Let ‘em put us in jail. I’m not going to sit around and watch while our marsh is destroyed.’”
Or consider The Hammond Star, which under the headline “Our goal is to serve,” reminds readers and web visitors: “Our goal is to provide responsible journalism that you can count on. Mark Twain said that the difference between the perfect word and the almost perfect word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. We strive constantly to bring you the perfect word and by doing so the most complete local coverage of the people and events in our community. The Daily & Sunday Star is your newspaper. It belongs to each of you.”
A May 29 news story by reporter Sylvia Schon spells out the fear and heartbreak of a community, as hurricane season begins June 1. Gathered for an annual blessing of the fleet, the future of the seafood industry itself was the issue at hand.
The Rev. John Dominic Sims, O.P., sprinkled each (boat) with greenery dipped in holy water and prayed for safety for each one. Sims is the pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Ponchatoula and the chaplain for the Manchac Boating Association. He is concerned about the oil disaster’s impact on the area’s people, many who have never done anything but fish for shrimp or crab going back generations. “We are going to face a disaster never, ever envisioned. We may never see it clean in our lifetimes,” said Brenda Harris, a Ponchatoula resident with long roots in the Manchac community.
Below the story a clickable big ad on the Hammond Star web site reads: “Pre-Apply for Disaster Food Stamps TODAY.”
Or consider the honest, soul-searching column by Dee Dee Thurston, managing editor of The Courier and Daily Comet, which serve Terrebonne, Lafourche and Assumption parishes and Grand Isle. She wrote on May 30 of the conflict she and so many others feel about the oil industry — and the region’s and nation’s — dependence on it.
Thurston wrote of the unknowns of this disaster, and the very real possibility that the Gulf may be destroyed. Yet she concludes: “I haven’t lost sight of the fact that my family, like so many others, was drawn to this place because of the oil. That the money that put clothes on my back, a roof over my head and me behind the wheel of that school-bus yellow convertible I loved so much came courtesy of the oil. And I know you’re supposed to, as my daddy is wont to say, ‘dance with the one who brought you.’ But I just don’t know.”
Or consider a web site, newspaper and Facebook-driven initiative called “Save the Gulf of Mexico”. It’s a collaborative effort of al.com, gulflive.com, nola.com, Press Register, The Mississippi Press, The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times, The Times-Picayune and other sources. It highlights the news stories, editorials, photos and videos of professional news organizations but also provides a central location for citizens and volunteers to contribute, organize or simply connect. It has close to 63,000 fans.
The Spokesman-Review's digital development created www.downtoearthnw.com, a microsite that hosted special coverage called “Dispatches from a Disaster,” highlighting the blog and photos of a local environmental filmmaker who traveled to Louisiana for a first-hand look at the mess.
So much power in the written and spoken word, shared through print and on the web around a problem in dire need of a solution — and sustained attention.
And so much more authentic than the May 31-created, BP-sponsored “community focused website (which is) part of BP’s effort to engage with the communities of affected areas, their residents, local leaders and other stakeholders.”
We in the news media call them our neighbors, our friends, and our fellow citizens.