BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. A complete tally of casualties from Hurricane Katrina is probably months away, but for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the process of reckoning has already begun. In part, that's because after the September 11th terrorist attacks, the New York Times unwittingly created a new model for remembering those lost in a disaster by quickly publishing what it called "Portraits of Grief," biographical sketches shorter than an obituary but containing at least one anecdote supplied by the victim's family or close friends. Ultimately the series presented more than 1,800 portraits. For many readers it was the way to comprehend some of the individual losses incurred by nearly 3,000 dead. Certainly the New York Times series posed many challenges to the reporters assigned to it, but the New Orleans Times-Picayune series that launches next week will likely be even tougher to write. Jim Amoss is the Editor of the Times-Picayune. He joins us from his temporary offices in Baton Rouge. Jim, welcome back to the show.
JIM AMOSS: Thank you. Glad to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why did you choose to go the "Portraits of Grief" route? What did you want to do with this forum that you didn't think you could do any other way?
JIM AMOSS: Well, I think you want to explode whatever it is behind this number of casualties that keeps being bandied about, you know, whether it's one thousand or more. I mean, it becomes sort of a numbing statistic. And this is a project that will last over months, I presume, and it will constantly remind people, remind readers of the culture and the lives behind the statistic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what sort of resources will you be devoting to the series?
JIM AMOSS: The best way to approach it, we felt, was to concentrate heavily at the very outset on finding people in a difficult situation and relying after that on readers by word of mouth. Our online version of the newspaper, we get in excess of 30 million hits a day, and we think that that means that a lot of people will either see or hear of what we're doing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Where else do you expect to get information?
JIM AMOSS: We've contracted some of the central points. For example, there's a morgue in St. Gabriel, Louisiana which is near Baton Rouge and is the main place to which bodies of Katrina victims were brought, and that morgue released for the first time the names of 32 victims, so that's a start.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Perhaps an even tougher job will be finding those people who knew them.
JIM AMOSS: Also finding people who knew them well enough that they can really give us some important information about their lives. You know, finding distant cousins probably won't be enough. And in contrast to the New York example, it won't be as easy to pinpoint the very next of kin, just because everybody is so scattered.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've just barely begun this project. Have you already run into problems?
JIM AMOSS: One of the problems that we're running into is how to categorize people. Our first line of inquiry is going to be to find obvious victims of the storm - people, for example, who drowned. But what do you do with people who died in subsequent days or weeks? For example, this week a famous chef from New Orleans, Austin Leslie, who was well-known as a chef in an African-American neighborhood and restaurant, died of a heart attack. And I think there are probably some fairly good reasons to believe that he would not have died had it not been for the storm and the grief that followed the storm. So that's one of our challenges, how to deal with these kinds of cases.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Another one would be, I guess, the New Orleans Times-Picayune is not really just focusing on New Orleans.
JIM AMOSS: Clearly the Gulf Coast and now, as a result of Rita, the parts of Southwest Louisiana were deeply affected and people died there as well. I mean, I think our scope will extend to both those areas.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm just wondering whether race or class will be part of these portraits. It seems, because of the political fallout from Katrina, that your "Portraits of Grief" could fuel a larger discussion about poverty and race.
JIM AMOSS: Well, you know, that relies on the presumption that the victims will emerge as overwhelmingly of one ethnic group or another, and I don't think that will necessarily be the case, although the reporting, at least in the national press, has tended to indicate that. Yes, it's true that resourceful people, by and large, had the means to flee the hurricane and - and did so in greater numbers than poor people did, and so to that extent maybe it's unbalanced. But there were many people of means who chose to stick it out, and to their peril.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, New York Times reporters who worked on the "Portraits of Grief" have described how frankly painful it was to mine these personal stories from grieving families. In fact, because the emotional toll was so great, the labor was widely divided among the very large New York Times staff, and these reporters weren't even left homeless or exiled like so many of your reporters have been. Have you considered the toll it might take?
JIM AMOSS: You know, I've considered the toll that everything we've done has taken. I think this is one of the most painful tasks that any reporter can undertake, but I think also at the same time it has a cathartic effect to be doing something that people will be so grateful to have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you even have a guess as to how many you'll ultimately print?
JIM AMOSS: I would like to cover every possible one we can get. I - I - I think I'll only be satisfied [CHUCKLES] if we approach that goal. You know, that has to be the goal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jim, thanks so much.
JIM AMOSS: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jim Amoss is the Editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
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