Finally, just as my next trip is about to begin, I'm nearing the end of reading all the back issues of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times from my 84-day drive to Alaska over the summer. I'd been waiting for this, because the end of the trip coincided with the biggest story of the year, Hurricane Katrina, and I'd been curious to see how the papers covered it.
There was certainly nothing wrong with the L.A. Times coverage. It sent large numbers of reporters to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and, even now, continues to provide massive coverage of what, thus far, has been a disappointing recovery marked by the insouciance of the Bush Administration.
But if anything gave the New York Times the edge, it was, as usual, the wonderful NYT headlines.
There is something in the NYT design that facilitates telling a dramatic story in the headlines and keying the paper's readers, better than anything, to what is going on. On the other hand, the LAT design does not give itself to capturing the full drama of great occasions.
The New York Times earned its reputation for superb disaster coverage back in 1912 when it beat every other newspaper by 24 hours on its Titanic coverage. It had an assistant managing editor on duty that night, Carl van Anda, who read Morse code and realize quicker than any competitor that the ship had sunk with disastrous loss of life.
Katrina first was mentioned prominently five days before it struck New Orleans, when it remained a smallish hurricane off the east coast of Florida. It was not even seemingly aimed at New Orleans until two days before it struck there. Weather forecasters at the Hurricane Center in Florida thought that after crossing Florida, it would turn north in the Gulf of Mexico and strike the Florida Panhandle.
Even when it hit Louisiana and Mississippi, Katrina the first day did not seem so dramatic. It had "faded" to a Category 4 storm and seemed to have missed New Orleans by a few miles.
However, on Aug. 31, the NYT had the first of five consecutive days' of its trademark page-wide headlines, the ones that no one else in the newspaper business comes close to matching.
"NEW ORLEANS IS INUNDATED AS 2 LEVEES FAIL; MUCH OF GULF COAST IS CRIPPLED; TOLL RISES," headlined the NYT.
A picture of a flooded New Orleans took up two thirds of the page beneath the headline.
Meanwhile, the same day, the L.A. Times, by comparison, dropped the ball dramatically. The LAT headline simply did not tell the story as dramatically as the NYT did. "Misery and Water Keep Rising," the banner said, although there were three pretty good subheads: "Destruction: New Orleans is deluged; in Mississippi, neighborhoods vanished" "Human toll: The dead must wait as stranded survivors plead for rescue" And "Lawlessness: Looting is out of control as exhausted police can't keep up."
The NYT sub-heads said, "SITUATION IS DIRE" and "Pentagon Joins in the Effort -- Bush Cuts Vacation Short."
The L.A. Times flood picture, while spread across the top of Page 1 beneath the name of the paper, was not as sweeping or as colorful as the one in the New York Times.
The next day, Sept. 1, the LAT had a good headline. "New Orleans Death Toll May Soar; Survivors Desperate; Looters Brazen," it said.
The NYT had a less dramatic headline, although it was all in caps in accord with NYT style: "BUSH SEES LONG RECOVERY FOR NEW ORLEANS; 30,000 TROOPS IN LARGEST U.S. RELIEF EFFORT"
However, on this second day, the NYT lead was more colorful.
"NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 31," was the dateline on the story by Ralph Blumenthal and Robert D. McFadden, the reporter who often is the lead writer on disaster stories for the paper. And the lead said, "Chaos gripped New Orleans on Wednesday as looters ran wild, food and water supplies dwindled, bodies floated in the flood waters, the evacuation of the Superdome began and officials said there was no choice but to abandon the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina, perhaps for months. President Bush pledged vast assistance, but acknowledged, "This recovery will take years."
The lead on the LAT story by Scott Gold, Lianne Hart and Stephen Braun, said, "NEW ORLEANS -- The city's police and emergency officials worked desperately Wednesday to prevent complete social disintegration as widespread looting continued for a second day and cresting flood waters hid untold numbers of dead."
The main thing to be said about all this is that when something really big happens, NYT style and design gives them an edge. The same thing was true on 9-11, when the L.A. Times headline was disappointing blockish, while the NYT headline soared.
Joe Hutchinson has been working on L.A. Times design now for some time. It is time, however, for a redesign to be launched on the really big occasions that build a newspaper's reputation.