Jim Amoss ’69, the executive editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, is not in a situation most would call enviable.
His hometown, New Orleans, is a shell of its former self — its levees destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, its houses steeped in floodwaters and its citizens trying to salvage what they can from the wreckage. His house on Esplanade Avenue has been looted, the electronics taken and the windows smashed in. His newspaper’s offices have been moved out of New Orleans; his staff now works in a makeshift maze of cramped rooms in Baton Rouge with folding tables and lap-tops, so packed that reporters and editors have to work side by side, almost sitting on top of each other.
But amid all the chaos and despair more than four weeks after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Amoss says he is living the dream.
“If I could subtract all the personal anguish from this, this is a journalist’s dream,” Amoss said. “This is an extraordinary story … Nothing will ever surpass this in sheer fascination and drama and unpredictability and importance to the community that we serve.”
Despite the Times-Picayune’s relocation to Baton Rouge, the paper has continued to be published both online and in paper form, sending reporters back into New Orleans to record the aftermath of the hurricane. Adding pressure to what is already a notoriously stressful job, Katrina has nonetheless provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cover one of the largest natural disasters to hit an American city, Amoss said.
Although the job is enormously taxing, Amoss said having something concrete to do everyday is a blessing many Katrina refugees have not been able to count on.
“It’s terrific therapy to have a newspaper [and] … have this very focused task every day,” Amoss said. “It’s therapy because all of our personal lives are turned upside down, a lot of us don’t have houses to go back to … We don’t know what our city is going to be like.”
On a typical day — of which there are none — Amoss said he gets up early in the morning at the condo in Baton Rouge where he is temporarily living with his wife and son, buys a newspaper and sits at a coffee shop, trying to glean all the information he can from it before tackling the Baton Rouge traffic, which has been exacerbated by the influx of hurricane refugees.
Once he gets to the “bland building” where the Times-Picayune is now housed, “all hell breaks loose.” Amoss, from the start of his day to the finish, is constantly running from meeting to meeting, editing stories, fielding calls from outside media who see Amoss as an expert on New Orleans, and worrying about the future of his paper.
“It’s utterly exhausting. It’s just non-stop,” Amoss said. “It doesn’t let up on the weekends. The story is relentlessly demanding, [but] the beast has to be fed.”
But Amoss said he has never even thought about giving up.
“It’s this confluence of maximum personal stress and maximum demand for professional ability,” Amoss said. “Everybody has to turn out stories while their lives are in shreds.”
Although Amoss is now the editor of a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper confronting a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, he didn’t graduate from Yale planning to go into journalism. In fact, while at the University, Amoss had his journalistic ambitions dashed when he was judged unfit to join the Yale Daily News during his freshman year.
“I wasn’t one of those people who knew at age 10 that he was going to be a journalist,” Amoss said. “It was one of the things I dabbled in, and when the Yale Daily News found me wanting, I sort of scratched that off my list, and it stayed that way for several years.”
Instead, Amoss focused his energies on his love for literature and music. A pianist as well as a vocalist, Amoss joined the Glee Club and the Russian Chorus, among other singing groups. His classmate Richard Tedlow ’69 said Amoss was a very cultivated and cosmopolitan student, and also introduced many of his friends to the finer points of classical music, taking them to New York City to see operas.
A self-described very “serious, kind of intense, moody” college student, Amoss majored in German Literature. Amoss, who had lived in Germany for a few years due to his father’s job as a steamship company executive, eventually won a Rhodes Scholarship to study the works of Thomas Mann.
Described by his friends as a quiet and genuinely friendly guy, Amoss was the exceptional kind of human being that people came to Yale wanting to meet, Tedlow said. And his suitemate Philip Laughlin ’69 added that although Amoss was extremely intelligent and “cultivated,” he was never anything but humble.
“What he did, he just did without a lot of show,” Laughlin said. “Jim just sort of went out and did what he did without any particular fanfare or sort of self-interest — ‘I’m going to be a hero,’ that sort of thing.”
Graduating at the height of the Vietnam War, Amoss faced the threat of the draft and applied to be a conscientious objector. Granted the designation, Amoss ended up working as an orderly in Boston City Hospital, pushing cadavers and patients from room to room.
Two years later, still unsure what he wanted to do, Amoss went back to New Orleans and took up a succession of odd jobs, which included everything from substitute teaching and painting houses to being a waiter. Although during college he had not wanted to return to New Orleans, Amoss said the homecoming was a blessing in disguise.
“I really had no intention of [going back to New Orleans], except I wanted to earn some money to travel around Europe,” Amoss said. “I knew I could get some odd jobs through family connections to finance my trip. In the process … for the first time I saw the city in adult eyes and fell in love with it.”
Amoss, who had always been interested in writing — his mother was a writer and illustrator of children’s books — started taking night classes in journalism. After bugging local papers for a reporting job, Amoss finally landed a summer internship with a local paper, the New Orleans States-Item, which launched his journalism career. Once he stepped into the newspaper building, Amoss said he knew he had found his calling.
“After my first day of work, I knew I was meant to [be a journalist],” Amoss said. “It was completely fulfilling and fascinating and amazing that I could get paid for this … That [may be] a cliche, but I experienced it.”
Developing an interest in investigative reporting, Amoss eventually ended up at the Times-Picayune where he moved up the editorial hierarchy, becoming executive editor in 1990. Under his leadership, the Times-Picayune won its first Pulitzer Prizes and elevated its circulation to 270,000.
In recent weeks, some have expressed concern about the future of the Times-Picayune. Much of the newpaper’s market has been displaced from New Orleans, and the rebuilding of the city will surely take many months or even years.
But Amoss is hopeful. In New Orleans, the French Quarter has come to life again, the Times-Picayune building is being cleaned and should be usable in three weeks, and citizens — including Amoss’ parents — are slowly moving back into their homes.
“My parents visited their house today, and suddenly their lights came on,” Amoss said. “It was just one of those great moments.”