May 4, 2006 – Vol. 41, No. 38

‘Spared for a reason’

Black newspaper still ticking after Katrina

Dan Devine

Even measured against the chaotic lifestyle of a reporter, Renette Hall’s schedule is crazy.

Take last weekend, for example. Hall, the executive editor of The Louisiana Weekly, finished production at 4:45 p.m. on Friday, April 21st. She left her office at the Childcare Council of Greater Houston, the Weekly’s adopted home since Hurricane Katrina, and went home. Then came her weekly trip back to the bayou, a six-hour drive that began around 4 a.m. on Saturday.

She spent her weekend observing the city’s mayoral election and working to resuscitate the Weekly’s advertising base. She left New Orleans at 4:30 p.m. on Monday, drove six hours back to Houston, recharged, and was in her office at 7:45 a.m. on Tuesday, preparing the next issue.

Pinballs don’t bounce around this much. But for Hall, the nonstop grind of publishing the Weekly isn’t a burden. It’s a blessing.

Hall doesn’t consider her commitment exemplary; it’s in her blood. She’s the granddaughter of C.C. Dejoie, who founded the Weekly with O.C.W. Taylor in 1925 as “a communication vehicle that offered African American readers a perspective that was sensitive to their unique positions in life.”

After graduating from Boston College in 1976, Hall became the Weekly’s society editor, but also set type, developed photos and assisted around the office. After a decade-long absence from 1986-1996, Hall returned as the Weekly’s executive editor, and has overseen the paper’s expansion to serve south Louisiana’s other emerging minority communities, providing “news that matters to all.”

For over eighty years, the Weekly has been a constant, an integral strand in the vibrant fabric of New Orleans. It had never missed a publication date since debuting on Sept. 19, 1925.

Like everything in New Orleans, that changed with Katrina.

When Hall recaps the days surrounding the hurricane, it’s like she’s recalling a book she’s read more times than she cares to count. Her crisp, specific answers feel distant, like she’s summoning them across a growing gap between life’s former promise and its current turmoil.

“The week before the storm hit, I was out of town,” she says. “My husband James [C. Hall, the Weekly’s circulations manager] and I had driven our youngest off to Washington, D.C. — she’s a freshman at Howard University, so we brought her to school.”

The Halls also have two sons, one a senior at the University of Notre Dame, the other a junior at Hampton University. “We were driving home, talking about how life was changing, being empty nesters, all the things we were going to do.”

They heard reports about Katrina on the radio, but since the storm was in the Atlantic, they paid little mind. They returned home Friday afternoon, didn’t bother unpacking, and spent the night as empty nesters.

At 4 a.m. on Saturday, August 27, Katrina reached Category 3 intensity, but, like many New Orleanians, Hall hadn’t realized its potential impact. “Foolish person that I am, I went to the store and loaded up our refrigerator and freezer,” she says. Within hours, officials in several New Orleans parishes ordered mandatory evacuation of all residents.

The Halls decided to evacuate that Sunday morning. At 2 p.m. on Monday, August 29, New Orleans officials confirmed a breach of the 17th Street Canal levee. “A couple of hours later, we were in Houston, watching the news say that our beloved city was inundated with floodwaters.”

It was the first Monday in nearly 80 years on which a new Louisiana Weekly didn’t hit New Orleans newsstands.

By Wednesday, 80 percent of the city was underwater. Hall’s home, which was elevated three feet off the ground, had four feet of water inside.

“Seven feet of water, in an area that never floods,” she says in disbelief. “And that water sat there for two weeks. … We were able to salvage some clothes, but everything else … I’ve been married 26 years. Everything that we had accumulated in our marriage over 26 years — gone.”

Their city in ruins, the Halls wondered how they would continue after everything had been taken from them. But something remained.

“By the end of the week, a light bulb went off in my husband’s head,” Hall says. “He realized, ‘We’re with the press. We can get into the city, we just have to show our credentials.’” So James and Bertel J. Dejoie [Renette’s brother, and the Weekly’s former business manager] returned to New Orleans, traveling demolished streets as they headed toward the Weekly’s office. What they saw upon arriving still stuns Hall eight months later.

“The block where the office sits was completely dry. The next block was inundated with water. We’re still trying to figure out why — I guess you can’t put any rhyme to reason,” she says. The building had lost power, but it, and all the equipment inside, survived intact.

Here was the glimmer of hope for which they had been searching.

“They immediately packed up the computers and the server, all the expensive technology that we use to publish the paper, and brought it back to Houston,” Hall says.

To Hall, the office’s survival wasn’t mere coincidence. “It tells me that the paper was spared for a reason,” she says. Continuing the paper’s mission took on special significance because “we all became minorities as a result of Katrina.”

“The city of New Orleans, the state of Louisiana, all along the Gulf Coast, needed to come together as one. When I would turn on the television in Houston and watch the news, what was going on — or more specifically, what was not happening — in New Orleans was fading away from the eyes of the rest of the country,” Hall says. “It became our mission to start beating on that drum and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get [New Orleans] back. You can’t turn your back on an American city.’”

With the future of New Orleans still uncertain, Hall was determined to ensure that the Weekly, for 80 years her family’s contribution to the city’s culture, would endure. As soon as James and Bertel returned, she got to work.

“First, I started calling up my co-workers and employees, checking to see where they were, if they were okay. I told them what I was going to do, and those that could [contribute] said they would do whatever they could,” Hall says.

One of those calls went to M. Scott Saunders, the Weekly’s IT person, who had traveled to Richmond, Va. “He said, ‘Send me the stories and I’ll post them on the website,’” Hall says. “I was making up between four and eight pages and putting them on the website, along with some public service announcements to make it seem like we had advertising.”

Formerly home to only each issue’s top stories, the Weekly’s website began hosting the entire paper on September 3, 2005, four days after what the National Weather Service described as “the deadliest hurricane since 1938 and the costliest disaster in U.S. history.”

“We had to maintain a presence,” she says. “We felt that if we didn’t maintain a presence in some form or fashion that it would be the death knell of the paper.”

They ran content from contributors who stayed in New Orleans throughout the disaster alongside Associated Press and National Newspaper Publishers Association stories, offering both local and national perspectives on the tragedy. They ran columns from African American educators and journalists like George E. Curry and Dr. Ronald Walters, analyzing the response to and coverage of Katrina. Bowed but not broken, the tireless volunteers covered the story, publishing four issues in seventeen days, keeping the Weekly alive.

On October 24, 2005, The Louisiana Weekly returned to print. It hasn’t missed an issue since, a testament to the dedication of the Weekly’s volunteer staff.

“I’ve got about five people that have been with me every week, a few that will drop in when they can, and some former employees that will shoot me some pieces,” Hall says. “The group of individuals who are sticking with me are very dedicated to the mission of the paper, providing news that matters to minorities, because it is obvious in this day and age that our side of the story is not getting a lot of attention,” she says.

Hall still runs every issue on the Weekly’s website for those New Orleanians and subscribers around the globe who can’t get it, to provide a taste of home to the displaced who can’t get there.

Even though its office emerged unscathed, getting home has proven daunting for the Weekly, as well. Both the paper’s pre-Katrina printer and Internet provider have pulled out of New Orleans, fearing their customers won’t return to the city. While Hall has found a new printer, she still hasn’t secured Internet service. Until she does, the Weekly will publish from Houston.

There’s also that problem of lost advertising, about which Hall remains optimistic. “I do think there is a revenue stream out there — after all, everybody needs to buy and replace everything, from toothbrushes to houses to cars,” she says.

After eight grueling months, with so many obstacles behind her, Hall can look forward with confidence and clarity of purpose. “The mission [is now] two-fold: to let people know what they need to do to rebuild and come back home, but also to let the rest of the world know that we’re not just sitting here twiddling our thumbs,” she says. “We want to rebuild. We’re not just an isolated community. We’re your brothers; we’re your sisters. We matter to you. Help us stand up again.”

When New Orleans does stand up, the Weekly will be there, serving as the cultural touchstone that C.C. Dejoie envisioned. “[There’s] a sense of continuing the family legacy on one hand, but I am also committed to the idea that the newspaper needs to exist,” Hall said. “I felt that if I [walked away from it], I would be letting down not only my family and the community of New Orleans … but also the community of the country, because we need that voice. Believe it or not, in 2006, we might need that voice more now than in the 1960s, and that’s saying a whole lot.”

To Hall, it’s a matter of conscience. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I didn’t try to keep the paper up and running,” she said.

So she presses on, every 4 a.m. departure helping her rest a little easier in the knowledge that the Weekly can still be found.



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