June 13, 2008

Today's Front Pages Analysis

In devastated Iowa, ‘Epic Surge’ and ‘Swath of Sorrow’

“Iowa besieged by skies and rivers.”

The Chicago Tribune summed up the sorrow and sadness in western Iowa and the fear and frustration in eastern Iowa as the state dealt with the deaths of four Boy Scouts in a tornado and flooding along rivers swollen by record rains.

“EPIC SURGE,” The Gazette in Cedar Rapids proclaimed in a display that incorporated both the front and back pages. With the Cedar River flooding 100 city blocks, the newspaper used a three-deck headline:

High Water Overtakes Downtown Cedar Rapids

Thousands Evacuated in Unprecedented Flood

Power Loss Widespread; Water in Short Supply

“It’s a hell of a front page,” Editor Steve Buttry said. With floodwaters a half-block from the newspaper’s office, the staff was working off generators in a sweltering newsroom.

Today’s headline, Buttry said, “was team work. We started the headline brainstorming in the afternoon, and it continued (around other tasks) for hours. Designer Michelle Wiese came up with the wrap idea. Rae Riebe, our Page One editor, designed the page.”

The main photo showed a marooned city hall and county jail and courthouse, which generally sit on an island. The newspaper’s Web site said: “No longer an island.” Said Buttry: “Liz Martin shot the photo from the Interstate 380 bridge, the only downtown bridge that was open. The city hall building on the island is a downtown landmark, so the image really captures what happened here.”

After printing extra copies of today’s edition, The Gazette is doing a second press run because newspapers have sold out.

In a column that will run this weekend, Buttry — who is new as The Gazette’s editor — wrote that the newspaper resisted an order to evacuate its downtown office, noting that news crews perform “essential tasks for the community in a time of disaster.” A disaster plan with an alternative newsroom is in place if the newspaper must evacuate.

With rivers across Iowa and elsewhere in the Midwest above flood stage, it’s being called historic flooding. A blog by a Gazette librarian showed front pages from March 1929 flooding, a “record until today.”

In western Iowa, the Sioux City Journal showed a “Swath of Sorrow” at a Boy Scout camp after a “Twister struck, killed within seconds.” In a heartbreaking front page, the nearby Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald offered comments and photos from vigils for the four teenage victims. A quote was its banner headline: “‘We are a family.’”

The Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star quoted survivors on “their harrowing twister experience.” This was no small-town news. National newspapers The New York Times and USA Today told the story on Page One. “Pelting Rain, Deafening Howl, Then Deadly Chaos for Scouts,” the Times said.

Front-page accolades were offered for the boys’ actions in helping the injured. USA Today explained, “Boys put first aid drills into action.” The Wichita Eagle — which also covered Kansas tornados that killed two — said: “Boys epitomized scout motto: Be prepared.”

The Denver Post headlined the news from across Iowa. “‘At God’s mercy,’” it said.

Kate Kennedy is front pages editor at the Newseum.

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