After record ice storm, weekly newspaper goes 24/7 to serve readers

As the deadline of The Crittenden Press coincided with a massive ice storm in Western Kentucky in the last week of January, Editor and Publisher Chris Evans knew the edition would be overtaken by events. Recalling an ice storm the previous winter, a one-column headline on the front page announced "Deja vu". But as all of Crittenden County, including Marion radio station WMJL, lost power, last winter's experience helped the newspaper become the sole source of local information at a critical time.

Luckily, the paper had started printing at a remote plant in September. As he waited for the 4,000 copies of the paper to arrive, Evans, left, said he told his small staff, "We can’t do this to our readers. We owe them more than this." He went to his native Tennessee, got a generator and enough power to publish an 8½-by-11-inch handbill that was inserted into the paper, and distributed around town even before the paper arrived. It gave critical updates on emergency services, electric repairs, telephone service, and water supplies; the need to boil water; schedules of banks, groceries and pharmacies; and local officials' request that residents "evacuate if they have the means." Oh, and photographs, too.

"We relied on a lot of ingenuity over the last 10 days to do just about anything, from taking a shower to putting out a newspaper," Evans said, adding that the paper was "battle tested" last year. After last winter's storm left many without electricity, Evans set up outside the local library and used its wireless Internet system to post updates on a blog he had recently started to update readers between editions. People outside the county called relatives in the county with the updates. They did so this year, too, even though local Internet access was out. Evans accomplished that by calling in news reports to Matthew T. Patton, a native who lives in Philadelphia and writes a column for the paper. "People were sending him pictures and he would post them online," Evans said. "He was running our Web site ... and you would never know he wasn’t right in the middle of it."

Patton, right, said he started by posting regional news items he found on the Web, but quickly turned reporter as readers e-mailed him information and questions. "Almost as soon as I started blogging, people were sending me e-mails asking about the welfare of residents there," he said in an interview. "If I couldn't personally get the information, I would put it back out on the blog," or tell Evans so he could check on it. Patton had already started a blog for his hometown of Dycusburg and posted reports there too.

The next week's Crittenden Press was limited to eight pages, because few businesses wanted to advertise, but it was chock full of news and printed a day early to meet demand. "Slow recovery for electricity," the main head said in bold capital letters, with a safety subhead: "Residents should turn off main power switch. Inside, Evans said in his column what he didn't want to say in the story: "The electric companies will not admit it publicly, but the rebuilding of the power grid is going to take weeks and weeks." The water story's main head as temperatures approached zero was "Turn off at meters during freeze." A front-page brief quoted Gov. Steve Beshear as calling it the worst disaster in Kentucky history, and a front-page story quoted the county's official historian as saying likewise for the county.

Evans' column began with the tale of nursing-home workers melting snow for toilet tanks. "That same resolve bloomed over and over again," he wrote, "as Crittenden countians knuckled down and found ways to survive an onslaught like none Mother Nature has pitched at Western Kentucky." (Well, perhaps since the U.S.-record earthquakes of 1811-12, when hardly anybody lived there.) Evans also gave credit to his staff for getting the paper out. "It's more like a family," he said in an interview. Evans, 43, and his wife Allison, 36, own the paper, which her parents owned. They have children 9, 5 and 1. (Encarta map)

Readers appreciated the efforts. "We got tremendous feedback" about the Web site and handbill, Evans said. "I had people drive by the office, honk their horn and give thumbs up. It's times like this that really give me a charge and makes me love my job."

Lessons? "No. 1, have a generator, have a plan," and an alternative way to post to your Web site, Evans said. "If you are serious about establishing yourself as the information source in the community, you better step your ass up to the plate. Crawl out of bed when you don’t have any heat."

And what about next week's paper? Evans said he is planning a special section with "the Git-er-done Awards for individuals and entities who need a slap on the back or a tip of the hat." He probably won't include himself, but we will, right here.

--Al Cross, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: 02/06/2009