An interview with a New Orleans newspaper man
Clancy DuBos is the co-owner, editor and longtime political columnist of New Orleans paper Gambit Weekly. Since late 1980, he and his wife, Margo, both native New Orleanians, have been publishing the alt.weekly. With two feet of water in their offices and staff scattered around the country after Katrina hit in 2005, the paper closed for nine weeks. Fortunately, AAN (Association of Alternative Newsweeklies) came to the rescue, and the Gambit not only located its staff, but papers around the country raised more than $100,000 in donations that went to the DuBos' employees. DuBos says they knew the paper was out of business temporarily, but never thought it wouldn't come back. When it reopened on Nov. 1, DuBos, who became the paper's editor for a third time, had four minutes on CNN that morning to discuss this milestone in New Orleans' recovery. These days the paper's circulation and number of employees isn't quite back to its pre-Katrina level, but it's not too far from it. DuBos says the level of camaraderie between the staff and the paper's relationship with readers are better than ever.
How has Katrina changed New Orleans?
Oh, it's changed New Orleans tremendously. Most of the changes have been very good. The aftermath of Katrina that is still hard to digest is the areas where there's been no change, not enough recovery. But we've seen tremendous change in political reforms; citizens are much more engaged in the political process now than ever before. We've lost a lot of people, but we've actually gained many new citizens; especially young people are coming to New Orleans in droves.
What are you hearing from your readers now?
I think the engagement of citizens after the storm has made a paper like ours even more appreciated in the community. We always were very popular, we have a good brand in New Orleans, but I think our readers appreciate us more than ever. The ascendancy of blogging has engaged everybody, including us. The community itself, of people who report the news, is bigger and more engaged than ever.
How was the staff's morale when the paper came back?
Great. We had to squeeze from 88,000 square feet into 15,000 square feet. So we were literally cheek to jowl. We had the editorial department and the production department squeeze into a 14 by 15 foot room, and you literally had no elbow room. But you know what we found? Communication between the departments increased dramatically. You know, when you're knocked on your ass, you gotta all pull together to come back, and that's what happened. Everybody worked really well together. Moral is better than it's ever been, and the people who were part of the company before who are still here now are like Survivors. We share a real bond from having survived Katrina, and it has made us much closer as a company, as professionals. We're back in our old offices now, but the level of communication and camaraderie is still there.
Back in November 2005, I can see how there would be a lot of news coverage in the Gambit, but what about music and arts and food? Was it hard to scrape together?
Well, there wasn't much to report, but we covered what was there. For the first year, virtually every cover story we did was about the recovery. It was all recovery, all the time. So our arts coverage went from criticism to stories about how the theater community was coming back, how restaurants are coming back. We went out of our way to let them know they could use Gambit as a way to get their messages out. So the bond between us and our advertisers, us and our readers, and us and the arts and entertainment community grew even stronger.
Did you ever get tired of reporting on the recovery?
No. We don't have Katrina fatigue. We can't wait for the next round of improvements. The private sector has recovered much faster than the public sector.
Are you hopeful for the future; or are you worried?
I'm very optimistic about New Orleans' future, economically and culturally. We always have to worry about hurricanes, but you know what? There's about 3,000 miles of American coast that has to worry about storms, whether it's Pacific storms, winter storms in the Northeast, or summer and fall hurricanes from Washington to Brownsville. It's not just us.
People have told me they think if another large hurricane hits the city, it will be end of New Orleans because the insurance companies won't invest in the city. Is there any truth to that?
No, I don't think so, New Orleans is too important. What are you gonna do with all the infrastructure for oil and gas? Thirty percent of America's oil and gas enters the country through south Louisiana. You can't just walk away from that, not with gas at $4 a gallon ... . Plus, New Orleans is here not by accident. We're here because of the Mississippi River. So if you shut down New Orleans, you shut down the port. If you shut down that port, what happens to all the coal, the corn, the wheat, everything else that comes to and from America's heartland? You can't truck that shit to China. You can't truck it from China to here.
And New Orleans is the U.S.' second-largest port?
Yep. It's one of the largest ports in the world. In terms of tonnage, in terms of cargo, it's where most of the coffee comes into the country.
I saw you quoted in a Washington Post article from 2005, and you said the Gambit endorsed Mayor Ray Nagin in his initial run. At this point, what’s your take on his time in office?
Katrina hit us all really hard. I think he gets criticized, deservedly so, for not being a good leader. You look at a city like Charleston, which was hit almost as hard by Hurricane Hugo in ’89. Their mayor, a guy named Joe Riley, responded very well. He's still the mayor. He's one of the best small- to midsize mayors in the country. Nagin should have taken a few pages out of Riley's book. Riley even came down here and tried to advise him, but Nagin doesn't listen to anyone. He's hardheaded, egotistical; he just doesn't get it.
What were some of the other large hurricanes that have hit New Orleans?
Audrey hit South Louisiana in ’57. Betsy hit in ’65, which also flooded the eastern parts of the city and also the Lower Ninth Ward, but it did not flood the main parts of the city. Truth is, Katrina did not flood the city, the Corps of Engineers' defective levy design and defective floodwall building flooded the city ... . If the floodwalls had been designed and built properly, they would have held, the water would not have hit the main part of the city because the water did not come over the tops of those floodwalls and levees. They were failures that caused the water to go through it. You would have had some minor flooding in some of the same areas as you had flooding in Betsy, but nowhere near what we had this time.
What's the status now? Would they hold in a similar situation?
According to what the Corps of Engineers is telling us now, yeah, they're in the process of getting it up to where it needs to be by 2011, so we have three more years to sweat.
What's your take on the federal government requiring the state of Louisiana to come up with a billion or so dollars....
One point eight billion in three years. Washington has never required that of any other state in the wake of a disaster. Why us? This is the White House. This is George Bush and Karl Rove. And the question is why. Why are they punishing us when they're the ones, and their predecessors are the ones, who fucked up?
Do you have an inkling as to why?
It's just punitive. It's Karl Rove. It's just how he thinks. It's George Bush, it's how he thinks to the extent that he thinks. I cannot give you a reason because there is no rational explanation for that. No other community in the wake of a disaster has had to do that. We're having to come up with too much of a percentage to fix a problem that they created. And we're having to do it in three years. They should pay 100 percent of it because they're the ones who fucked it up, not us.
Are you hopeful for a better relationship with Washington under a new president?
It can't get any worse.
Should Obama get elected....
I think either Obama or McCain would recognize the serious political and moral imperative of taking care of South Louisiana, not because of charity, but because it's in America's interest. If America wants to see $9 a gallon gasoline in two years, just let South Louisiana go to shit. I will happen, I don't care how many oil wells they drill elsewhere.