Business: New Orleans's Must-Read Paper

It requires a certain sense of humor to keep living in the Big Easy. Renee Peck, whose World War II-era slab house in Lakeview flooded along with the rest of her New Orleans neighborhood, wanted to be among the first on her block to come back. In February 2006, when her house was about a month away from move-in condition, Peck got a call from her contractor. Bad news: a tornado raked through town and ripped two walls off her home.

As it happens, Peck is the home and garden editor of The Times Picayune—a 171-year-old newspaper whose remarkable renaissance after the flood is one of the few happy stories to emerge in Hurricane Katrina's awful wake. And Peck, like most of the paper's staff, was part of the story she was suddenly covering. She had begun chronicling the rebuilding of her home in a blog and a column called This Mold House a month earlier. Today, her section is fat with advertising—up to about 52 pages from a pre-flood 40 pages—a rare example of robust growth in the otherwise moribund newspaper business. More remarkable still: people stop her, a newspaper editor, in public to tell her their stories. "It really struck a chord with a lot of them, because when I wrote about what kind of insulation to put in, they were doing the same thing," she says. "When I wrote about alternatives to granite, because you couldn't get it, they were going through the same thing."

And they weren't just reading her weekly section. The paper's circulation has climbed up from zero in the days after the flood to about 180,000 on weekdays and 200,000 on Sundays, according to Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss. That's about two thirds what it was before the storm (245,000 daily and 270,000 on Sundays), but still extraordinary given the slow pace of return and reconstruction. The paper lost about 20 percent of its news staff after the flood, most of whom left for personal reasons, and it wasn't until June 2006 that they started being replaced. "We've had no trouble attracting the best journalists in the country," says Amoss. "It's the best story and the best place to be. We're a relatively healthy business again in contrast to most newspapers in the country right now. It's counterintuitive. I figured within two or three months the adrenaline would be gone and we'd collapse from exhaustion. I am amazed to say this has not happened."

Part of that success is due to the paper's enthusiastic embrace of the Internet. Before Katrina the paper's site, NOLA.com, received 80,000 page views a day. In the first week after the storm, it received 32 million and became a hub for people sharing information, looking for loved ones and seeking solace. "We talk all the time about citizen journalism in the newspaper industry, about hyperlocal sites that serve particular communities," says Mark Fitzgerald of Editor & Publisher magazine. "They created one of the best. They created a real place of the community to get together. It was absolutely vital." Two years later, the daily Web traffic is double what it was before the disaster.

And they weren't just reading her weekly section. The paper's circulation has climbed up from zero in the days after the flood to about 180,000 on weekdays and 200,000 on Sundays, according to Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss. That's about two thirds what it was before the storm (245,000 daily and 270,000 on Sundays), but still extraordinary given the slow pace of return and reconstruction. The paper lost about 20 percent of its news staff after the flood, most of whom left for personal reasons, and it wasn't until June 2006 that they started being replaced. "We've had no trouble attracting the best journalists in the country," says Amoss. "It's the best story and the best place to be. We're a relatively healthy business again in contrast to most newspapers in the country right now. It's counterintuitive. I figured within two or three months the adrenaline would be gone and we'd collapse from exhaustion. I am amazed to say this has not happened."

And the paper itself has become vital, its line of questioning tougher and the sense of outrage on its editorial pages palpable. The mere act of printing its first issues again was both a victory and a signal of commitment. The Times-Picayune has dug hard into a spate of bad political news at both the city and federal levels, specifically separate corruption charges against Rep. William Jefferson and city councilman Oliver Thomas. It pulled few punches when Sen. David Vitter apologized after his phone number showed up in the records of the D.C. Madam. At home, reporters are still living with Katrina, and even if it's not the nightmare it was two years ago, they've got a clear-cut mission.

"The coverage is a level or two up from where it was before the storm," says Douglas McCollam of the Columbia Journalism Review, who lives part-time in New Orleans and covered the paper's performance in the weeks immediately following the storm. "It didn't do such a great job in covering public corruption, which is an endemic problem there. It didn't do as good a job covering the gritty city-hall kind of stuff. Post-storm, their focus on the key issues in the rebuilding process has been both accurate and in-depth. They really have not let go." Last year the paper picked up two Pulitzer Prizes, including a gold medal for meritorious public service, for coverage of the deluge and its aftermath. Columnist Chris Rose, who emerged as something of a star after the waters receded, was another finalist. "It went from being a pretty average paper to a superior paper," says Nick Spitzer, a New Orleans-based folklorist and musicologist.

In being loyal to its readers, the readers have apparently returned the favor. "You always see people with this paper," says Editor & Publisher's Fitzgerald, who was amazed by the extent to which he witnessed people reading it on a recent visit to the city. "That's not a phenomenon you see in Chicago," where he's from. Still he says the paper, which is owned by Newhouse News Service (a privately held company that didn't release financial data to NEWSWEEK), "can't be escaping the problems all metro newspapers are facing these days, and they have to be worse in some cases. If they had closed [after the storm] no one in the industry would have blamed them. Newhouse showed tremendous support and still does." The paper even sent reporters to Japan and the Netherlands to see how other flood-prone cities cope.

For now—like the city it covers—The Times-Picayune is coping creatively and a little better than is occasionally reported. It's growing, if slowly. And the content of the paper isn't the only thing that has changed about it. Katrina left her mark in other, quirkier ways. Now, chained to the wall of The Times-Picayune garage, you'll find vital reporting tools that the newspaper never dreamed of needing in a pre-flood world: boats.