I worked at The Southern for eight years, and no day stands out more than Friday, May 8, 2009.
The heart of our coverage area was devastated by a wind storm. Early on, it was described as an inland hurricane. It wasn’t until later that we added the word “derecho” to our vocabulary.
Many of the reporters and photographers were out gathering the day’s news when the weather took a turn for the worse. When the wind stopped, they turned their focus to documenting the aftermath. Their photos and articles told a powerful story.
The Southern’s office was no different than most areas of Carbondale. The power was out with no sign of a quick return. We didn’t know exactly how we were going to do it, but we knew there had to be a newspaper the next morning.
With so many out of power, compiling our content online wasn’t going to be enough. Very few readers had access to a computer, and not everyone had a smartphone. A physical paper needed to hit newsstands Saturday morning to inform the people and further connect them to the plight of their neighbors.
In the paper’s dimly lit newsroom, a plan was concocted. A small team would travel to the office of the Paducah Sun. The newspaper would be designed and printed there and shipped back to Southern Illinois. The rest of the staff worked from laptops as much as possible and gathered at the Shawnee Community College extension office in Anna.
The paper was going to be only eight black and white pages. There were no advertisements, classifieds or sports. The content was sent to the team in Paducah, where it was put onto pages and printed. It was a simple plan, but its execution was complex.
The fine folks at the Sun had a newspaper of their own to produce. We had to wait for them to complete their job before we could truly begin ours. It was a reasonable, but imperfect, solution.
A team of six, which included me and two fellow copy editors/designers, a photographer and two editors, left for Paducah around 8 p.m. It was pitch black as we drove down a deserted Illinois 13 from Carbondale to Marion. We were breaking the implemented curfew, and the first 30 minutes of the drive were eerie.
Upon our arrival in Paducah, there were logistical issues to figure out. The computers and pagination system were different than our own. With assistance from the Sun’s staff, we learned on the fly. At about midnight, we got to work on our paper.
News had been streaming in all evening. One person was killed. Destruction was widespread. Thousands were without power. We started flipping through pictures to find the best ones. There was no lack of options.
It was about 3 a.m. that the printing process began. As we looked at the first editions of the press, it wasn’t the most impressively designed paper, but it was quite the accomplishment.
The day ended at 4 a.m. with some Arby’s and a case of beer taken back to our rooms at Paducah’s Drury Inn & Suites. The hotel was our home for the next few days.
We produced two more papers in Paducah, working in the morning and early afternoon to get our papers printed before the Sun. On Monday, May 11, we were worked in The Southern’s Marion office and produced a more complete newspaper. By Tuesday, we were back in the Carbondale office.
Many readers expressed how pleasing and important it was to them to find a copy of The Southern the day after the storm.
The production of those papers wasn’t motivated by profit or an agenda. They were products of an unwavering commitment to the people of Southern Illinois. It truly service-based, local journalism, completed by those who lived through the devastation themselves.
People who choose to cover news are a different breed. When a big story breaks, there’s an adrenaline rush accompanied by a call of duty. It’s not always the most important job in the moment, but the collection and sharing of news is vital to our society and the historical record.
Those involved in the 2009 derecho newspapers did a service to the residents of Southern Illinois, and a decade later, I’m still proud to have played a role.