Views from a Newsroom: 10 Years After the Tsunami
(This column appeared online Dec. 29 in the Portland Tribune.)
Ten years ago this week, I was sitting in a newsroom in Salem, Oregon, working another Christmas Day on the metro desk and enjoying the company of my fellow journalists. Christmas usually is an easy shift: The largest stories in each section are pre-written. Add a few photos of Santas or kids, and the issue fills itself.
And then a tsunami hit in the Indian Ocean. It was caused by an 9.0-magnitude earthquake so huge it made the planet wobble in its orbit around the sun.
I loved my days in Oregon newspaper newsrooms. It was a great, 20-year career. But that day stands out.
We worked the shift as usual, filled in the stuff that wasn’t pre-written. We celebrated the holiday with potluck in the staff break room. No Christmas music, but we did have four channels of TV news and the police scanners.
Then, late in the shift, the Associated Press moved a story about an Indonesian quake of unknown magnitude, saying several buildings had collapsed and nine people were dead. Back then, we finished building each day’s paper – got the pages “off the floor” as it were – by 11 p.m. It was late, so we ignored the first iteration of the story. Nine dead in Indonesia? We wouldn’t have space to fit that one in the international news section of the Dec. 26 issue. We ignored it.
At 10:24 p.m., AP moved the next version of the same story. A copy editor caught the update. Now it was an 8.5 quake with 160 dead. And not in Indonesia, but in Sri Lanka.
The copy editor blinked at his screen several times. “Sri Lanka? That’s, like, a thousand miles to the west. How the hell … ?”
The only explanation any of us could think of for nine dead on one side of an ocean, and 160 dead on the other, was a tsunami.
A word the AP story never mentioned.
The Copy Desk chief that night — a quick-witted newsman named Deka with a gift for sports trivia and lead guitar — called downstairs and asked Pre-Press to give us back Page 13A. We removed a story about Palestinian elections, crafted a brief about the quake and re-released the page. There had to have been a tsunami but we couldn’t speculate. And no wire service was ready to call it. We knew the story but we didn’t “have” the story. So we told readers that there were nine dead on one side of an ocean, 160 dead on the other, a thousand miles of open water in between, and hoped the readers did the math.
It was the best we could do.
We were “off the floor” at 11 p.m., Pre-Press sent the paper on to our printing press, and went home, knowing we’d given the readers the slimmest sliver of a story that would only get worse.
I set the alarm for 6 a.m. Sunday and National Public Radio told me the death toll was up to 5,000. I picked clothes up off the floor, brewed coffee, headed into the newsroom with pillow creases on my cheeks, posted the story on our Web page and waited until 8 to wake up the managing editor.
The immediate problem: It was still the holiday, and much of the next issue was pre-written and pre-designed. We had to rip it up. We also had the smallest conceivable skeleton crew; only us volunteers work Christmas or the following day. Now, what was supposed to be a milk run had become a short-handed slog.
The prebuilt front page was torn apart. Inside pages, too. Ads were moved. The Communities and Op/Ed pages got nixed, and the copy editors – the people who build the newspaper – scrambled like crazy.
I built the online coverage for our website. Every time I finished downloading and reconstructing a graphic, the wire services would send out an alert changing the death count.
The story grew worse and worse. The death count rose by 1,000 people per hour. Every hour, the whole shift.
We started with a page for Indonesia and one for Sri Lanka. Then added a page for when the tsunami hit India. Then Myanmar. Then Thailand. Then Malaysia. We weren’t covering a tragedy that had hit yesterday. The damn thing was still moving. Still killing.
We thought it was “just” an Asian disaster. At mid-afternoon Sunday, one of the copy editors looked up from his terminal, a little pale, and said, “Dude? I think this thing just hit Africa.”
We started building pages for Somalia. For Tanzania. For Kenya.
The hours ticked away. It was a holiday. We had configured a news staff just big enough to do “cop calls” and to calculate snowfall totals at the ski resorts. Instead, we watched as maps of the Southern Hemisphere got redrawn. Permanently.
Sixteen hours later, we finally agreed that we had to get this day’s paper “off the floor” – pre-press was waiting. The story was still in flux but we’d done what we could.
At 11 p.m., Deka called downstairs. “It’s the newsroom. We are off the floor. Good luck.”
We shut off the lights and headed home.
That version of the Statesman Journal, which hit my doorstop Monday morning, listed 14,000 dead.
When the radio snapped on at 6 a.m., the death toll had climbed to 22,000.
I picked clothes up off the floor, brewed coffee, and headed in to do it all again.
Just like every other journalist in that newsroom. And in every other daily newsroom in the world.