Joplin paper editor finds tornado affirms mission of journalism and offers challenge of balancing stories of life and death
BRANSON, Mo. -- Sandwiched between standing ovations before and after her 27-minute address, the daily editor from tornado-ravaged Joplin, Missouri, offered a stirring endorsement of why newspapers matter.
“If people are saying newspapers are dead they don’t really know what stuff we are made of," Carol Stark told members of the Newspaper Association Managers gathered at a hotel here on Aug. 4, 2011. "This is a story that I hope people can take home with them because newspapers are very much alive because when it mattered . . . people turned to us, our local newspaper, and people should never forget that.”
Stark, editor of the Joplin [Mo.] Globe, is alive six years after being told a typically virulent form of cancer would take her life within a few months. And years ago she survived her car being picked up by another tornado and tossed to the ground -- only to find 22 people in cars just ahead of her has been similarly tossed -- and killed.
The Joplin daily’s editor said those experienced helped her on May 22, 2011, when a Category 5 tornado struck the city of 51,000 residents, killing more than 150 people and leaving at least a thousand others homeless – including 3,000 children, and almost a third of the newspaper’s own staff.
“When people were staggering around that night I understood what they were feeling,” Stark told a gathering of newspaper executives in her first trip from the devastated city and first public talk about what her newspaper and community have been through. “People say it sounds like a freight train. Well no folks, it sounds like evil.”
So traumatized by their losses, so committed to working, and so unwilling to ask for help for themselves after reporting what others had lost, it would be two weeks before some of The Globe’s own employees -- 33 out of 117 -- would acknowledge to fellow workers their own losses of cars, homes, apartments, and their need for help.
In a gripping personal narrative, Stark recalled the day of the tornado in The Globe newsroom. It was lightly staffed – a couple of reporters and a photographer. A third reporter was at the city’s high school covering graduation. There was an ominous weather forecast. The first inkling of the devastation to come, Stark recalls, was when a local TV station they monitored carried video of the approaching storm.
“Don’t you think it would be a good idea for us to take shelter,” a colleague asked? Stark and her staff took to the newspaper’s bomb-shelter-like basement. Although she couldn’t make or receive calls, her phone soon started flashing short text messages from around the city. A hospital was hit. Across town, a major big-box store was gone. And at another location, the high school was ravaged – after graduation ceremonies earlier in the afternoon.
When messages made clear the storm had passed, they went upstairs to the newsroom. Stark’s first instinct: “You have to start getting anything you can and just get it out on the Internet.” Soon, the paper’s Internet site crashed from an overload of global traffic. Stark’s children were texting to her phone their status – OK – but the phone network wouldn’t allow her to get out a reply. She fretted about how to balance attending to her family to attending to her community’s news and human needs.
“Get your big girl panties on girl because you’ve gotta’ do both,” is what Stark recalls thinking. “The right thing is to take care of your people in your newsroom and take care of your readers, and there is no particular order.”
For the first week, she says, everyone at The Globe was “adrenalin driven.” To help, the Kansas City bureau of The Associated Press assigned two of its reporters full time for two weeks to join The Globe’s newsroom and to write and take assignments from Stark over the paper’s byline.
The commitment to the community paid off for The Globe in skyrocketing single-copy sales. And it also vindicated the paper’s role as a community convener and champion. “Our readers for a period of time thought we hung the moon,” said Stark. Because of deaths or disruption, the paper lost 1,000 subscribers immediately after the storm hit, but after two months it has regained all but 300, she said. A normal Sunday pressrun serving about 31,000 people could have sold 50,00 papers for the first month, she added.
The life-changing event for Joplin cried out for some changes in editorial policies, especially about death. As with most newspapers in the last decade, The Globe has turned to charging to run obituaries. But now it decided to provide a free 10-column-inch obituary to every tornado victim – for free. Because authorities were not forthcoming, The Globe started to compile – and publish ahead of the coroner – a running list of deaths it could confirm on its own. It compared and published the coroner’s list until they gradually matched.
Stark worried how politically conservative southwest Missouri would react when President Obama visited the city days after the devastation. Her fears proved unfounded. “He came, and had just a wonderful, wonderful message,” she recalled. From immediately after the tornado The Globe and Joplin had played host to hundreds of national and international reporters, with mixed reviews. After Obama came, they mostly left.
And then Stark faced a new challenge for an editor: How to help the community through the transition from cleanup and mourning to something else. “Then the real work began: Are we going to get things back to normal?” she asked. Her concern was not to move the community on to a “new normal” too quickly without paying tribute somehow to those who had died.
That task fell in part to Missouri School of Journalism graduate Emily Younger, 26, a Joplin Globe reporter to whom Stark assigned the task of tracking down the story of every single person who had become a tornado fatality – beyond a mere obit. There was the man who always played Santa Claus, and another who had taken enormous pride in being a near-professional whistler. On a Sunday a month after the disaster, the paper published a multi-page spread of photos and life stories tracked down by Younger.
“People read that and they just sobbed and sobbed,” said Stark. “It was just the best thing we could do for closure.” From marking death, the newsroom moved on to celebrating life. After two months, the paper published another section – 22 miracles in May, celebrating those who had lived against the odds.
Throughout the aftermath, Stark recalled, The Globe also did its job to report all the news, including some ugly stories about looters, fake-church scams, insurance and mortgage struggles. “I am very proud that with our coverage we were able to get things changed, to get some people arrested . . . and to make things right,” she said.
The task of celebrating life and future while respecting the losses continues. Shortly after the tornado, the newspaper wrote a story about a father and son speeding in their car to reach home ahead of the tornado’s arrival. But the storm won – sucking the son out the open moon roof of the car, dislocating the arm of his dad who tried to hold him in. The teen – who had just graduated high school minutes earlier -- died. Now, the paper is working with friends to create the story of his life, as told through his social-media tweets, posts and messages. Will’s story will become a story of the Joplin High School class that never had a chance to savor its own graduation.
The new normal now intrudes. On Aug. 17, public school resumes in Joplin in a hodgepodge of temporary buildings, including part of a shopping mall. Eleven schools sustained damage.
And what of the newspaper? On one level, things are still far from normal. “We’re all broke,” says Stark. “You know journalists.” The kindness of strangers has helped, she says. People have sent the paper’s employees cash in the mail. On the other hand, Stark’s faith in the relevance of what she does has been reaffirmed. “Throughout I have felt this is the most noble thing short of saving firefighters lives,” she said. “This is the most noble thing we can do, helping our people.”