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Newspapers still matter; ask folks in Joplin

ANDY RIEGER, The Norman Transcript

Just hours after an EF-5 tornado killed 161 people and tried to rip heart out of Joplin, Mo., local newspaper staff members started showing up to work. Some had lost relatives to the massive storm. Others lost homes and vehicles. Some had only the clothes and shoes they were wearing at 5:41 p.m. May 22, 2011.
"This was a time when newspapers had to rise to the occasion," Joplin Globe editor Carol Stark told Oklahoma newspaper men and women Friday morning. "No amount of disaster preparedness. No little handy-dandy book. Nothing prepares you for this."
The next day's paper, chronicling the storm's path and the lives lost and changed forever, was but an hour late off the press. The newspaper's website and social media portals had already been busy reporting on the storm and efforts to restore public safety long before the presses started.
"This was going to be the story you know you never want to have to write, but you know it's the story of your lifetime," Stark said.
The newspaper itself, a sister paper to The Transcript, wasn't hit. A newsroom employee was counted among the dead. Thirty-three staff members lost homes and vehicles. Many staff members found safety in the Globe's offices.
"One hundred and sixty-one people died that day. Sometimes we wonder why it wasn't thousands, since it hit a residential area," Stark said. Blocks were leveled and homes were scraped off their foundations.
"Even folks who grew up in the community who were lifelong residents were lost because there were no street signs," the Globe's online editor David Woods told the press gathering.
He said the newspaper served a vital function for the community. Government officials weren't releasing the names of dead and injured, so the newspaper started its own list and verified names with families and funeral homes. In the days after the storm, they couldn't print enough copies to satisfy the community's hunger for the facts. The newspaper's website drew millions of page views. "So much misinformation was out there after the storm, it was our job to sort through all this crap," Woods said.
Reporters and photojournalists faced many barriers in covering the story. Areas were closed off to vehicles. Work boots and dry socks were a sought-after commodity to help in the search for storm victims. Some advertisers' businesses were gone.
Death notices and obituaries came in waves, emotionally draining the staffs. Businesses that were temporarily closed down received free advertising space when they reopened.
Help came from the newspaper's parent company, former employees and fellow journalists. The paper's owners arrived with cash and clothes. Donated Zebra cakes and bottled water kept them going when the adrenaline faded to exhaustion.
“Those things are awful, but they are addictive," Stark said of the little pastries that became the newsroom symbol of the storm.
Their readers also appreciated some levity as they rebuilt the city. A story about the contents of an adult toy store found scattered on a woman's lawn in a neighboring town gave the community a reason to finally smile.
A year later, the story continues. An anniversary edition, memorial magazine and coffee table book are reminders of the destruction and the path to rebuilding. In all of the chaos, the newspaper's staff and owners learned they still matter.
"You learn that shoe leather journalism is still very much alive," Stark said. 'The story for newspapers is our community still thinks we can save the world. The community still relies on you for information.