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updated: 5/26/2011 10:22 AM

Pride, solidarity for newspaper in a time of tragedy

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Publisher Michael Beatty probably wasn't surprised. I know he is proud. And I don't even know him. Or any of the reporters, editors and photographers, pressmen, artists and drivers he is proud of.

I can't really imagine what they've lived through. Not beyond the stripped-naked trees, strewn detritus of once-normal neighborhoods and wretched devastation shown on television, YouTube and in Beatty's own paper, the Joplin Globe.

But I have a fair idea. I've seen newspaper people respond to tragedy. Here's what Beatty saw:

"It was amazing," he wrote in a prepared release. "These people came in who had lost their homes completely, But they were just dedicated to their jobs, to getting the story out ... Their focus was just to get the news out for the people, in print and online, so that they would have the information they needed about where to go and what to do."

Beatty said nearly a quarter of the Globe's 117 employees found their homes heavily damaged or lost them altogether. And we're not just talking about newsroom people here or the more visible editors, reporters and photographers you may immediately think of as newspaper staff. Of 91 carriers, 81 showed up to deliver the newspaper.

Minutes after the tornado hit Sunday night, staffers began just showing up at the office to see what they could do. The newsroom remade the Monday edition and got it to press only about an hour late, Beatty said.

In a story for his paper and in an interview Wednesday on CBS's "Early Show," Globe reporter Jeff Lehr described the 40 seconds of terror he spent crammed into a closet while the tornado destroyed his home around him.

"He came out and saw total devastation everywhere ...," co-anchor Chris Wragge said later in a CBS web story. "He walked for about two miles, found someone with a car and asked him, 'Would you please take me to work? I have to start reporting on this story.' That's what he's been doing ever since."

Or, in Lehr's own words: "I have wandered eight or nine blocks and finally reach an edge of the tornado zone, where there are vehicles moving and houses with roofs still intact, even a few trees still upright in their yards. An older couple in a car pull up to their home. They are among the lucky. They ask if I'm OK. I tell them I'm one of the many who have lost their homes. I ask if they can take me to the newspaper. I have an awful job to do."

The specifics of Lehr's "awful job" may bear some reflection. The rock star reporters you see flying in from CNN, The New York Times and other big metropolitan organizations will sweep into town, get some dramatic footage and compelling quotes and then move on to the next crisis. But Lehr and his colleagues will remain, interviewing traumatized families, cataloging the destruction and helping their friends and neighbors find out where to get supplies and medical help, how to look for missing friends or family, how to apply for relief for their ruined businesses and how to prepare, God forbid, for more bad weather.

They're chronicling the human drama of the disaster, of course, but they're also steeped in the considerably less glamorous task of providing useful details about the practical needs of daily life. All while simultaneously trying to take care of their own battered families and property.

I know they're not police, firefighters, doctors or nurses, all of whom no doubt are engaged in heroic efforts of their own for the people of Joplin, but I can't help admiring the job and the dedication of the Globe's employees -- and, really, all local reporters covering disasters in their communities. So much of their reputation is scarred by ridicule for presumed political slant, typos, grammatical slips or failure to precisely capture the arcane nuance of, say, a tax increment finance district. But the real nature of their character and their commitment is on display now, as they wade into weeks of 18- or 20-hour days, with little to look forward to but the satisfaction of helping their town in a time of need.

Yes, I'm sure Michael Beatty is proud of his staff right now. So are journalists everywhere.

• Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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