Michael Duke, a third-generation journalist in the Jewish community with the Jewish Herald-Voice, discusses community news, community involvement, and Hurricane Harvey. Duke emphasizes that being a newspaper in a community like this is different from being a large paper like the Houston Chronicle as it is a more interpersonal relationship, where he might see the subject of a story in two days at shul. However, this difference is also relevant when covering stories like the flooding and Hurricane Harvey in that community. Duke relates the Harvey stories of him and his immediate family, including losing his car in the flooded streets and how the inability to get to people to get their stories impacted the paper. Duke, always about the community, shares how the community and even the teens have learned to come together with these flood events to help those in need. Duke also shared a tragedy of a couple lost in the flooding and how that impacted him.
Read on for the full transcript of the interview:
Interviewee: Michael Duke
Interview Date: August 31, 2018
Place: Congregation Brith Shalom Library in Houston, Texas
Interviewer: Mark Goldberg
Transcriber: Ellen Schuble
Interviewee: Michael Duke
Interview Date: August 31, 2018
Interview Location: Congregation Brith Shalom Library in Houston, Texas
Interviewer: Mark Goldberg
INTERVIEWER: Today is August 31, 2018. This is Mark Goldberg interviewing Michael Duke at the Congregation Brith Shalom Library in Houston for the Resilient Houston: Documenting Hurricane Harvey project.
MG: Thank you very much for talking with me today. And so eventually, we’re going to talk about Harvey, and I want to have a conversation about community journalism during Harvey. But why don’t we start before Harvey, and tell me a little bit about yourself.
MD: Sure. So I work for the family business, which is the Jewish Herald-Voice newspaper. The newspaper was founded in 1908 by a man named Edgar Goldberg. Coincidentally, Edgar Goldberg grew up in a Jewish orphanage in New Orleans, where my grandfather grew up a generation [0:01:00] later. My grandfather was Joseph Samuels. His father was a printer and died before my — I guess, before he was 40 years old. He was 38, something along those lines. The three children still had their mother, but it was Great Depression time. And so she couldn’t take care of the three kids — reached out to a rabbi, I think, in San Antonio or Dallas, who made arrangements for them to go to New Orleans. And they grew up in this orphanage there but had a great education because of the relationship with the Newman School. So long story short, Edgar Goldberg and my grandfather were kind of brothers, because they grew up in the same home, although a generation apart.
So the newspaper was founded in 1908. It was called the Texas Jewish Herald. I think in the teens or 20’s a printer in Houston named Dave White started a rival publication called the Jewish Voice. And a year later, Goldberg died, and White bought the Texas Jewish Herald — combined the two. And so that’s how we got the name [0:02:00] the Jewish Herald-Voice, which is hyphenated. And Dave White ran the paper up until his death, I think, in 1971, ’72. His widow, Ida White was still working for the paper when my grandparents bought it in 1973.
And so my grandparents, Jeanne and Joe Samuels, had been the editor and publisher up until my grandfather’s death in 2011, but my grandmother, who is now 95, still works there as our editor. My mother, Vicki Samuels Levy, is our president. My first cousin Matt Samuels does our production and sports writing. My stepfather Lawrence Levy does our circulation, so we’ve got three generations at the paper right now. And I’ve worked there since 2004. My first story was Ronald Reagan’s death to report, so yeah, it’s been a while now.
MG: Family business with a deep, regional history.
MD: Yes, definitely. Yeah.
MG: So why don’t you also tell us a little bit about [0:03:00] growing up in the area.
MD: Yeah, sure. I grew up in southwest Houston across the street from where the Emery/Weiner School is now — so like the Linkwood area. I started off at the Hebrew Academy, which is now the Beren Academy for pre-school. But then my parents divorced as I was going into kindergarten, so we did public school thereafter. I was originally at Longfellow, then Parker, went to Johnston, and then Lamar High School.
Growing up, I always knew, I guess, I would go into the family business at some point, but I took kind of a meandering path — studied English for a while. But when the opportunity opened up, you know, I moved back to Houston from Austin and took the job here. But growing up, we were members of Congregation Emanu El. I went there up until bar mitzvah and became a bar mitzvah dropout afterwards, because I was — really enjoyed playing soccer. So we were connected to the Jewish community in many ways but also, you know, with a little bit of distance [0:04:00], I guess. And maybe that’s just from being from a journalism family, where you always have to have this like professional distance with things. So I’m sure my mom was involved, and I’m sure we were involved, but you know, not super-involved like I see families now that I get to report on with the paper. So again, we don’t go to — we didn’t go to Jewish Day school or anything like that, so.
MG: So that actually raises my first question about community journalism. How do you see community journalism as similar but also different to, I guess we’d call it, mainstream journalism?
MD: Yeah, sure, so there are many similarities but also some significant differences. In general, I think both have the goal of keeping the public informed on important issues. One of the main differences, I think, is that we are truly invested partners in the community. And we know the people [0:05:00] the day before we report on them. We know them during. And then we also have to live with the consequences, because we’re going to see them tomorrow and the day after. And so we joke sometimes that the most important stories that we write are never actually published, because we like to work sometimes behind the scenes toward a more positive outcome. So then we have the opportunity to report not just the problems but also the solutions that, you know, are made through that process, where we can hopefully negotiate those things with the people that we work with. So we’re definitely invested partners.
And we’re stakeholders in many ways, and so we take that like very personally. We’re very proud of that reputation. We feel like, besides just keeping our community informed, we do our best to keep the community connected. And I’m not sure if mainstream journalism has that as a top priority in the same way that we do [0:06:00]. Because we are not a huge Jewish community here. We all do need each other, but it’s a disparate community. And there’s a lot of diversity, so we work hard to make sure that people on the right, on the left, and the middle, religiously or politically or whatever, can still all sit at the same table. And we hope that we have a role in making that possible, so.
MG: So earlier, you were referring to this journalistic line between the paper and the community. And then what you just were describing in terms of community involvement and investment flirts with that line, right? Like crosses that line — so what are some ways in the day to day or in terms of specific reporting that you tow that line?
MD: Yeah, right.
MG: Yeah, how does that play out?
MD: So you know, when you hear something on NPR or read in the paper, and there’s like a disclosure at the end, right? Like such-and-such person, like, contributes to NPR or whatever [0:07:00] — like that would be the tagline on every story that we write, you know. I’ve taught at that school. I have a relationship with here. I’ve been on the board of this institution. You know, there’s all this, you know, nepotism. And we just — it’s kind of, I guess, a given, right? So we have to mindful of that and then, I guess, go the extra mile to make sure we are as professional as possible and objective as possible.
But at the same time, we understand that what we write and how we write it does have a direct impact on those institutions but also on the relationships we have with them. And so we do have to be very careful and mindful, so we do a lot of phone calls and emails before a story comes out if it’s problematic to say, as a courtesy, “This is the way we’re going to have to report this.” We’re asking for forgiveness before permission, and I think people appreciate that. They understand our position as well [0:08:00].
That being said, I think they lean on us a little heavier than they would, say, the Houston Chronicle or something like that if they don’t want something in the paper. And we have to make some tough decisions sometimes, but we try to certainly take all those perspectives into account. And it’s messy, you know. It really is. But we try to do our best. We’re a small operation, too, and people understand we’re a family business. And so there’s a lot of forgiveness, I think, with that, too, so.
MG: Yeah, that is what I was going to ask. Do you think that the family background plays a role in that —
MD: Hugely, yeah.
MG: – I guess, tension between community involvement and journalistic objectivity?
MD: Absolutely, because my grandparents — my grandfather, in particular, was very politically involved. He had run for school board early on in his career. And so there’s still a lot of folks that think maybe they lean politically one way or the other. And there’s been some shifting kind of back and forth a little bit politically — and certainly, in these divisive times, on some issues. And so there’s presumptions [0:09:00] that I would potentially lean in the same direction as my grandparents do. So it’s — you know, we have to navigate those sorts of things. But transparency is the best way and just having direct communications.
And I think that’s to our benefit that anybody in the community can call and ask for a meeting with us. And we’ll go meet you at Kenny & Ziggy’s, or at your house, or shul, or anywhere. Or you can come to our office. Whereas, in a large mainstream publication, I don’t think you have direct access to the decision makers in that same way. And then there’s the fact that we’ll see you in synagogue that Friday night, or we will just run into you at the bagel shop, too. So like you could have an impromptu conversation with us at any point in time. Like so the accessibility level certainly makes a huge difference and helps strengthen those relationships, because we are living and working the same community that these folks are, so.
MG: Have you ever experienced a time where you did this due diligence that you’re describing and you gave a heads-up about an article that has to be published and the way [0:10:00] it was going to be published and then, even still after that, received backlash? It seems like the response to that could be not just from a professional standpoint but personal because of the newspaper’s position in the community.
MD: Sure. I’m sure —
MG: Like how does that feel?
MD: Right, how does that feel? It feels horrible, right? Because we do care. Like that’s the thing. We want to be objective, but at the end of the day, if we’re going to be intellectually honest. Like we care about these people, because they’re our neighbors or family members. I mean, you grew up in this community, too. So you understand how close we are in many ways. So it is very difficult, and we just have to do our best to, I guess, move forward and try to find ways of establishing more common ground when we do have to make tough decisions. We lose subscribers — we have lost subscribers [0:11:00] in the past when we made political endorsements or taken tough stance on issues like the Iran nuclear deal in recent years, where people felt very strongly on certain issues. It was so divisive with the endorsements up until — through, I guess, the Obama years that we now don’t do that any longer.
And we were kind of a holdout anyway. A lot of Jewish newspapers had — long had gotten away from that for that exact reason. Like we see ourselves as community journalism to be kind of a bridge builder. And the endorsement thing, people took it very personally. And we would get some, you know, cancellations and that sort of a thing. And it just became too much of a liability. We like that people bring our endorsements into the voting booth with them, and it helps guide them. So we still create an opportunity to give — you know, have a forum for people to weigh in on political issues, but we don’t make the direct endorsements anymore. So we’ve learned from some mistakes, you know. We just try to do our best next time going [0:12:00] forward, so.
MG: I noticed in the most recent Rosh Hashanah special issue — and this is an annual thing. I just saw it yesterday that political candidates advertise in there.
MG: And so that seems like, perhaps, a way to not endorse but still be part of a political conversation.
MD: A hundred percent, yeah. We’re happy to have political candidates. I think the Jewish community likes to punch above its weight in terms of like having very good voter turnout. We’re politically engaged, certainly, nationally. But I think, particularly, in Houston, like we have some pretty important folks in the landscape here. We know what it has done for our community to participate in the democratic process. My grandparents again had amazing relationships with elected officials. At my grandfather’s funeral, there were like six or seven members of Congress there. And yeah, it was — it was a really neat thing. And Republicans and Democrats, you know, again, we like to try to bring people together [0:13:00] rather than divide them. So it’s a — we like the advertising. We also like to give them a voice on the op-ed page, too, if they are so inclined to talk about things, so yeah.
MG: So we’re getting closer to Harvey.
MG: But before we get there, can you describe what the regular day-to-day or week-to-week operation looks like?
MD: Yeah, so we’re a weekly newspaper right now. We’ve introduced more digital products in recent years. We’re still behind the curve on that. Again, we’re a small operation, and we try to do what we can do. But we’re a weekly newspaper. We go to press on Tuesdays. The print edition hit this mailbox on Thursdays. We now have an e-edition that comes out on Wednesdays, which effectively is just like an animated pdf of the print edition. But we also have an online website, so — with breaking news or additional coverage or analytical coverage. Then we can put more content online [0:14:00] on a daily basis.
My job — you know, I — my title is associate editor, but I do a lot of the news reporting, feature writing, photography. I work on the editorial page. Sometimes I clean the toilets. But I like to be out and about in the community. If I’m stuck at my desk, I don’t feel like I’m doing my job, because it’s all about engagement. It’s impossible to write about a community and not to see it and experience it firsthand. And it’s kind of funny.
We’re 110 years old, but I think I’m the first like field reporter that we’ve ever had. Again, in the pre-digital age, we relied heavily on the institutions who didn’t have websites or Facebook pages back then to provide, I guess, advertorial content, in a way, to us. Our founding like — founding statement was that we are a community institution, and everybody has a voice in our paper. We would edit that copy of course.
But it was [0:15:00], I don’t know, maybe a glorified newsletter in the early years. But now, we try to be much more of a professional operation. And so I’m out there covering things. I do a lot of education and politics reporting — a lot of Israel and geopolitics as well, because those are personal interests of mine. I also am a part-time teacher, and I typically touch on those topics. So I’m at the office very early on Tuesday mornings trying to get copy done. But yeah, if you find me at my desk, then I’m not doing my job that week, so.
We’ve got a staff of about a dozen people or so. A couple different departments, we have the editorial, which, of course, works on copy and imagines. The production department does all the layouts and the design, both online but also in the print edition of course. And then we have the business side of the business, which is advertising, and circulation, and those sorts of things — the not-so-sexy part. The reality is, you know, we have these lofty ideals that we exist to bring the news to people and keep them informed, but the reality [0:16:00] is we bring — we bring advertisers to customers, you know. Because everything is determined, at least in the print world, like a percentage between advertising and then copy. And that really determines how much meat there can be in a paper. It’s because you have to have the percentages up to be able to afford to, you know, stay in business.
MG: So you’re mentioning at least two things that suggest the current status of print media.
MG: The role of advertisements and also the e-edition. So how have you seen the landscape change?
MD: Change, sure.
MG: And how has that affected the Jewish Herald-Voice?
MD: Yeah, so we kind of — in general, it’s an industry that’s kind of cut our own throats, right? Because for so long, everybody was giving away the content for free. And all of the sudden, you’re asking some people to pay for it. Some publications have been successful in doing that. I know Haaretz, I think, has a good business model. That’s the big daily in Israel. That’s more [0:17:00] left-wing. We still pretty much survive on the advertising of our print product, although we are doing some transitioning now. We’ve got some good accounts, like Gallery Furniture for example, in our e-products. So we’re making the transition — just not as fast as we would like. But the industry is still, I think, figuring out how to make money online in terms of paywall or advertising. It’s a completely different business model.
I mean, the New York Times, I think, still writes for Facebook really, although that’s obviously changing because of Facebook’s internal problems in recent years. But — so we’re a bit of a dinosaur still in that regard, but I like physical. You know, people come to our newspaper every week to look through the physical archives. We have a full archive at our office. We’re working with the University of North Texas in Denton, who’s actually digitizing and making a searchable online portal for our complete archive. But that’s a slow process, so. But people love to come in and research their family histories, and there’s a lot of genealogical work that [0:18:00] goes on through our newspaper. So hopefully, we’ll still have a print product going forward. I’m certainly invested in it and would like for it to be there.
MG: Has there been a big change in terms of print subscriptions?
MD: So we’re actually fairly flat, which is a good thing, because some people have closed shop, including some Jewish newspapers. We’re — I failed to mention this before. We’re actually one of the very few independently-owned Jewish newspapers that’s left. Most of them, in one way or another, have a connection with Federation or other like non-profit agencies that really kind of make the operation possible. But we’re 100% for-profit. Not that we make a profit, but we’re not a non-profit. But we’ve actually toyed in recent years about maybe becoming either a non-profit or a free publication in print. That would change, you know, our circulation and mailing classification, so we kind of have to navigate those [0:19:00] waters.
But we just want to get as many papers in the hands of, you know, people possible. You know, I think our print subscriptions are around 20,000 — like subscribers for the print edition. It’s many more for the e-edition now. That has changed, but then our online content — I mean, you know, it’s hundreds of thousands of unique views. So that’s a little harder to, obviously, quantify and make money off of right now. But hopefully, we will someday so that we can be around for another 110 years. But it worries us.
Harvey was hard on us, because some of important advertisers are real estate agents for example. And all of the home listings in the Meyerland area and Bellaire, they were wiped out. So we lost a lot of advertising dollars. We picked some up through like contractors and that sort of thing, so it hopefully offsets to some degree. But it was — you know, it’s a scary thing. It really was, so.
MG: So let’s talk a little bit more [0:20:00] about Harvey’s impact on the newspaper. So first, I read in various reporting sites that, in the moment of Harvey, there was a scramble, right? And that each of your family members had their own Harvey story.
MG: That then together affected the newspaper. So can you tell us a little bit about — well, first, your Harvey story? And then we’ll get into the paper.
MD: So let me start — and forgive me. Hopefully, this isn’t too much of an [unclear, 0:20:33], but like I want to start with a comparison. In previous, like, catastrophic flood events that we’ve had in Houston, Memorial Day in 2015, Tax Day 2016, my immediate family was not impacted by that. And so we were able to focus much more on ensuring that we were still going to have a weekly paper that week and really be out there doing our jobs. Harvey was different.
So in my personal situation [0:21:00], I live near University of Houston. We’re in Eastwood, that neighborhood. And while my main house did not flood, my garage did flood. And that night when it was flooding, I was down there trying to salvage what I could. And some neighbors had come by, who had to abandon their vehicle in high water. And they were trying to get to the woman’s mother’s house, who was — she’s a — she said that she was disabled and that she was trapped on the countertop with like three feet and rising waters in there. I stupidly said, “Alright, we’re going to get you there.” My wife was in like a nightgown. I’m sure I was dressed comparably. These people — we threw them in the back of my Volvo SUV, and we were actually able to get to their house on the other side of Telephone Road — dropped them off so they could get in and help the mother.
We got — we turned around, and in maybe a block and a half heading back to our house, the water at that point [0:22:00] was significantly higher. And my car was, you know, consumed by it unfortunately. So my wife and I had to crawl out of the car and wade back home through waist-high water in the middle of the night. So that was a mildly terrifying event, which I was completely responsible for. I put my wife’s life in danger. I put our neighbors’ lives in danger. Of course, the goal was to try to save this woman who needed help, but it was not the right decision probably. Because we could have easily ended up in a much worse predicament than we were, so I lost my vehicle, which is a huge detriment to the work that I do — not that I would have necessarily been able to go out right then and get in touch with people and do like, you know, reporting from the field. But in the immediate aftermath of Harvey, those days and weeks, I spent a lot of time trying to replace my vehicle instead of reporting, so that was a huge challenge and kind of a self-inflicted wound [0:23:00].
My grandmother’s house, which is in the Willow Meadows neighborhood near United Orthodox Synagogue and Three Brothers Bakery, had never flooded in the 50-plus years that she had been there. That house was built before 610 was there. It was a field of blackberries. It was the house my mother grew up in, so my grandmother was there. My mom was there. My cousin Wendy was there — and a friend of Wendy’s and a couple pets. And they decided to like hunker down there like we did in previous storms, because while certain houses on her block maybe did get some flooding previously, she’s on a high point near the corner. But this time, they did get water. They got almost a foot of water in the house. And they didn’t know what to do.
I started calling around the neighborhood to get in touch with people that I know have a plan, because they’ve been through many floods. I got in touch with a woman named [0:24:00] Jenelle Garner, who is part of the emergency response team. And Jenelle was able to get ahold of the family that lives behind my grandmother, which is an elevated home. It’s the Hoffmans. And they have boys, and they have a basketball goal in the backyard. And so at some point, they built a little portal in the fence to go get the ball when it went over the fence, which was locked initially. But Jenelle called them. They unlocked it, and then my — everybody was able to basically cross through the backyard, I think, in like knee-high water and then went to the Hoffmans.
And I think they ended up hosting multiple families that day and the subsequent day. The helicopters that were being brought into the neighborhood — one of the pick-up points, I think, was right at their house. So they kind of hand a front-row seat to all of that, but thank God, everybody got out. And they spend the next couple days there until they were able to get back home, so.
MG: How did you contact Jenelle [0:25:00] Garner? Where did that relationship come from?
MD: So thankfully, because we’re a community institution, for better or worse, we’ve been in similar situations before. Jenelle really rose to the occasion as one of the point people for emergency response during — I think during Memorial Day. So there’s three women actually in the UOS community. There’s Jenelle Garner, Amy Goldstein, and Holly Davies. And so I was — they’re always my people that I call first in these emergency situations, because they are very much plugged in. They live in the neighborhood. They’re the ones who are organizing the responses. And so she was the first person that I called, and you know, within three minutes, we had a plan. Thank God. Because I didn’t know what else to do. I personally was calling the Hoffmans and couldn’t get ahold of them for whatever reason. So it was probably because they were already rescuing other people. And I don’t think my grandparent — my grandmother [0:26:00] was the first one to arrive there. I think other people had already evacuated to that — because there are certain houses that area built — that were built after Allison, you know, with flooding in mind to be able to basically be on high ground, so.
MG: Well, it sounds like this story is rooted in not just Harvey preparation but really past histories of flooding. Is that where that emergency response organization came from?
MD: Yeah, it’s a direct response to the habitual flooding problem that we’ve had in that little pocket of southwest Houston. And it’s — what’s impressive to me as a reporter, I guess, this is all grass roots. It’s self-initiation. It’s this sense of community. Like they fire department can’t get to you. The National Guard is like a day and a half from being able to get to you. And so the first responders are these mothers [0:27:00] and high school kids.
I mean, some of the most moving reporting that I did in the aftermath of all these major events were like 14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds who went out and bought kayaks and life jackets, not for themselves but for the 80-year-old people that they know they have to pull out of homes, because they’re double-heart and lung transplant patients. And nobody else can get to them, but these are kids. And these kids just know that that’s their role and that’s their responsibility, because that’s what it means to belong to a community that really looks after its own.
And so thankfully, my grandmother happens to be in the middle of that community even though she doesn’t even go to United Orthodox Synagogue. She’s still, I think, an Emanu El member. But because the Jewish community in general looks after itself and its neighbors, non-Jewish neighbors included, we had a lot of confidence that they would be able to get through this particular event. If she was in another neighborhood, I would have been a heck of a lot more worried [0:28:00]. I’m isolated where I’m at, so that was a little more scary. I couldn’t necessarily rely on my neighbors in the same way she could, so. I mean, I’m sure we would have helped each other out, but you know, the assurance wasn’t a given, I guess.
MG: With that, it’s a reflection of the geographic element of the community that you’re not in the heart of it. So these organized responses are also geographic.
MD: Yeah, and we bought this house in the last, you know, year or so. And it was a tough decision, because we thought about wanting to be in the middle of the Jewish community. But in my mind, you know, if I’m in the middle of the Jewish community and my house is flooded, it is going to greatly impact my ability to do my job. Because if I’m tied up with trying to sort of my own mess, I can’t be helping other people and reporting on what’s going on with them to get them the help that they need [0:29:00]. So I had to kind of make the tough decision to be on the outside looking in to some degree — but to still be able to have my ability to get there if I had to be, you know, so.
MG: So you mentioned before how the flooding of your car greatly affected your work. And then this story about your grandmother shows that the family that runs the family business was deeply affected. So during Harvey and the immediate aftermath, what did the day-to-day operations look like? Because they had to have been abnormal.
MD: Right. So —
MG: But the newspaper still came out.
MD: So the newspaper still came out. We were a couple days late, but that was not a function of us per se. It was a function of the fact that our print and our print mailer was disabled, you know. I don’t — I can’t remember if they specifically had flood damage or not, but they wouldn’t be able to have a work crew to be able to run the presses and everything [0:30:00]. But we, having gone through previous flooding events in Houston, knew that we had like an emergency plan that our servers were protected. We had everything we needed electronically to be able to work remotely. I mean, that is one of the benefits of, obviously, the digital age — that we can pick up our office in a minute and still get a newspaper out 10 minutes later if we had to.
And so my cousin Matt, basically, had everything on the production side. In a way, not having a car forced me to be able to have a greater output, because I didn’t waste time driving around looking for people. I could only work from my desk at home — only work from the phone. With those limitations, it allowed me to by much more, I guess, focused. I had more alacrity in what I was doing. And so my output was a lot greater — in a way, probably not as accurate as it could have been on the ground seeing it for myself [0:31:00]. I had to much more heavily rely upon what other people’s experiences were. And so that was a challenge, and that was different than what I had in previous flooding events. But I stayed in my office for however many days and just — you know, phone call after phone call, transcription after transcription, writing after writing.
My photography wasn’t great obviously, because I, again, couldn’t be there with my camera and myself. So I more heavily relied upon on what other people could send us. And then trying to get the newspaper out, trying to deal with my car situation, but also — because everybody I’m talking to is my friend, I have to make three more phone calls to that person just to check on them.
One of the emergency response people that I mentioned was Amy Goldstein, who had never flooded before. She’s a single mother with a teenage daughter. They did flood this time, and we actually ended up hosting them at our house for nine and a half months [0:32:00]. She spent most of her time and effort in previous floods helping other people, but all of the sudden, she needed the help. We, thankfully, have a garage apartment that was unaffected. Just the bottom part of our garage flooded, so they lived with us for nine and a half months. So it was kind of a different experience, too.
You know, I think — there’s a social worker in the Jewish community here. Her name is Gayle Kamen-Weinstein, who broke a book called Wounded Healers. And I think that’s a pretty good description for people in the community who do spend a lot of their time helping other people but who also were impacted this time.
So you know, we never thought that we wouldn’t get a newspaper out. We just didn’t quite know what it was going to look like and how soon it would be able to get out. We were obviously publishing online every moment we could, you know, when copy got turned in and edited and proofread. But the print edition itself, you know, it was a couple days late, but we still got it out. And we’re still proud of that, because in 110 years [0:33:00], we’ve never missed a weekly edition. And hopefully, we never will, you know.
MG: So you mentioned how you were on the phone a lot. Describe how you reported. I mean, it sounds like individual conversations over the phone were a major source, but can you describe a little more broadly how you reported? And what were some of the stories that you wrote about?
MD: Yep, so because we kind of understand the landscape, we pretty much know what’s going to flood and what’s not going to flood in these situations based on Tax Day and Memorial Day. Harvey, we saw more flooding of course. Like West Houston, we haven’t even talked about that yet, but that was all very new. So I just kind of start with the obvious folks. What does UOS look like? What does Willow Meadows look like? What does the immediate area around the JCC look like? And we have all these contacts, because we write about these families every single day in our newspaper. We write about these [0:34:00] institutions. We already have cell phone numbers. We already have work and personal emails. And so, in a way, there’s — we have a huge advantage to be able to get the reporting going quickly and not necessarily have to be on the ground just knocking on doors.
But it really cuts both ways, because I do know these people. And they know why I’m calling them. And it’s really like the worst job in the world, because here I am saying, you know, “I’m a reporter, but I also care about you. I’m your friend. I know you’re in hell right now. Tell me how it feels to be hell, because I need to go write a newspaper article about that and then sell advertising so that we can share that.” So we benefit in a way from their misery, and I lose a lot of sleep over that, you know. And it’s hard to reconcile that, but thankfully, people are pretty understanding about why we need to [0:35:00] report on what they are going through. But I always give everybody an out.
And so, yeah, I started calling just the obvious — the obvious people that I know the families whose houses previously flooded to see how they were doing. And I literally just sit there with my notepad. I write faster than I type. It slows down my workflow, because then I have to transcribe. But I think I filled up maybe 40 of these little notebooks within the first two days of the reporting. And I just basically asked what they’re going through — what the experience was like. I need to get as many facts as possible. How much water came into your house? What is the immediate danger that you’re in? What is your plan? Where is your mindset? Where is your emotional state? What are you thinking about? What’s the bigger problem here for you? And ask them who else they’ve been in touch with [0:36:00].
So I’m, you know, hitting them up for story leads again. And I feel terrible about that, but that’s kind of what we do so that we can kind of gain a larger perspective — but with the goal, of course, of identifying the needs so that our community is able to then respond to those needs. And I guess that’s how we can justify what we do, because as soon as I get off the phone with the Alter family, I call JFS and say, “First of all, how are you guys doing? But by the way, if you don’t know about the Alter family situation right now, you need to find out about it, because they’re in a desperate situation. Because they’re reflooded, and their resources are such. And I just spent 30 minutes on the phone with them. I can’t tell you everything they said, but I can tell you that you need to get in touch with them.” And so, again, we function in a role of like connecting people with resources that needed those. So we’re kind of proud of that role [0:37:00].
So I would probably speak to four or five different people for four or five different stories. And then I would have to turn my phone off for 30 minutes and just write, write, write. And I would send copy to my mother or my cousin Matt. My mom, she’s normally the person I send to directly. This is Vicki Samuels Levy, but because she was dealing with my grandmother’s situation, she, in some ways, was kind of out of the loop in this particular case. So I would just send copy directly to Matt. He lives in Cinco Ranch in the Katy area, so he was also unaffected. So he was able to turn things around pretty quickly, too.
And that was just the cycle. I would get four or five stories going, turn them around quickly, and then just pivot and move to the next one — the next set, and then circle back a few hours later to check on the people that I initially reported on in case we had to give any kind of major updates, status changes, and asking what their needs are. And the more people I would talk [0:38:00] with, the more I would understand what was available and what wasn’t available, you know, in terms of counseling, or financial help from JFS, or supplies that were needed that were now beginning to flood into the JCC, even though they also had flood damage — and so just providing direct information to people that needed the help, so.
MG: Were you able to cover Jewish stories outside of the heart of the flood zone, which is the heart of the Jewish community? You mentioned West Houston.
MD: West Houston, yeah. So yeah, I was woefully inadequate on reporting on things outside what I would describe as the eruv, right? Like the immediate Meyerland area. Because that’s where most of my contacts are. Thankfully, my cousin Matt lives in West Houston. He goes to one of the synagogues out there, Temple Sinai. And so he was kind of plugged into that, but [0:39:00] thankfully, we already have this kind of model in place where we rely on community institutions to provide us information and sometimes even copy. And so he used his contacts to be able to understand what was happening there. And so I think for the most part they were feeding us information — you know, ready-made information that we could publish.
Again, I think we didn’t do a good enough job on telling the West Houston story, because it was a whole other story in many ways in the challenges that they were facing. But we tried to get as much of that in that we possibly could with the limited ability to get in touch with all those families. Like I don’t have the direct contacts with them.
But then we also were fortunate, because some agencies, like Chabad for example, which does have a West Houston presence and is very outward-looking. And they’re all over the place doing things, so we were able to pick up some stories that were kind of in the satellite communities just because they were already doing work out there, including like in the prison system and what Jewish inmates [0:40:00] in the Houston area were being experienced through Harvey. Because they were effectively abandoned by the state. They were just — they were left there to die. And it was a Jewish unit. And this one Chabad rabbi, you know, worked day and night to get these guys transferred to a safer place, where they could have kosher food. And it was, again, a whole other story, which we eventually got to report. But in the immediate, it was just — like quick responses on things, so.
MG: So how long did it take for the operations to go back to normal, if they’re back to normal?
MD: Yeah, so it’s not back to normal yet. My grandmother is only now moving back home. And it’s been a very hard process for her. And because it seems like half our staff is family, we’re pulled in multiple directions. We’re still trying to recover on the advertising losses, again, which were kind of happening in the context of a struggling industry to begin with. So I think we’re still kind of in almost emergency response mode a full year later [0:41:00]. I think we’ve come a long way. And we’ve never not made payroll or anything like that, but it’s still — I think we’re kind of in the threat zone. And it will probably be maybe another year before like we fully feel like we’re grounded again.
And then we’ll get ready to go through another transition, because my grandmother is her age right now. And she will be missed. She still tries to come to work as much as she possibly can, which is at least three days a week these days. So I don’t know. In a way, it feels like you — we just kind of lurch from crisis to crisis, because going into Harvey, I don’t know if we had fully kind of recovered from Tax Day. And when we were at Tax Day, I don’t know if we fully recovered from Memorial Day. And personally, I hadn’t. I hadn’t mentioned this before, but can we talk a little bit about Memorial Day?
So I was living in the Linkwood area at the time. My house did not flood, but my immediate area did. And the morning after the storm, before I really [0:42:00] knew what my job was going to look like at that point, because I hadn’t really done full-blown disaster reporting — I mean, I reported on Katrina, but that was like Houston’s response to Katrina, helping other people. And Ike never really happened here in the way that apocalyptically it was said it was going to happen, so.
But with Memorial Day, my neighborhood was really bad. And I’m right by the bayou. And I was talking with a family on the phone. I mentioned them earlier. This is the Alter family. I had taught their kids at Emanu El. They live on what was then a lake wood — or a lakefront property, because they were on North Braeswood. And their house had flooded. But the night before, it was graduation for their high school — the eldest daughter’s high school, which was downtown. The grandparents had gone to the ceremony and had left a little early as the storm was coming in. The rest of the family stayed for the end of the ceremony and was trapped in the parking garage. The grandparents had driven to their home but couldn’t get in [0:43:00], because everybody else had the house key — were trapped in the front yard, eventually on top of the vehicle — couldn’t get into neighbors’ houses or anything like that as the rising waters came. Eventually, a fire department boat picked them up. The grandparents are Shirley and Jack Alter. And they had a daughter with them as well. And about a mile down what became the river towards 610, the boat was disabled, and it capsized. And Shirley and Jack drowned.
Again, I was very close to that family. The next day, we knew they were missing. They hadn’t been discovered yet. And as I was on the bayou just kind of taking pictures and surveying, I saw a dead person floating in the water. And the water — the current was still pretty significant at the time. And I tried to grab a hold of him, but I would have been pulled into the water. So I had to let go [0:44:00]. And it turns out that that probably was Jack Alter’s remains unfortunately — of somebody who I considered to be almost a best friend, that family. And so that was a pretty — I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ve fully processed that. I certainly compartmentalized it. His remains were found a few days later, and then also his wife Shirley’s were, too, like many, many miles down the way.
But in reporting that disaster, I spent a lot of time at the Alter’s house, too, not only with the grieving family to be a friend to them but also to help muck and gut their house. And I don’t know if mainstream journalists, reporter, would have probably been in the same situation that I would have been in. But because of who we are and what we do, I definitely had to put the notepad down and camera down a lot during that initial disaster to just kind of be there for the people that I care about [0:45:00]. I also spent a lot of time at Rabbi Gelman’s house, which flooded, in the immediate aftermath of that storm. I did a little bit of that during Tax Day, too.
And by the time we got to Harvey, I hate to say it, but I’m kind of numb to these things at this point, you know. I interview sometimes the same people, and they’re like, “Yeah, you can just use my quotes from last year,” because it’s the same thing all over again, right, which in a way is funny but also very sad and poignant, you know. But I guess I process the disasters a little bit differently now, because it’s not new anymore, you know. Back then, I would cry a hell of a lot, you know. But I don’t think I’ve cried since Harvey and with my own grandmother’s situation.
And like Memorial Day, I was at the Alters’ house so often. This time, I also had to be at my grandmother’s house a lot, and that was really hard. Because I would have to leave when the rest of the family [0:46:00] members had to stay behind. And my grandmother’s losses were pretty heavy. I mean, she appreciated the fact that what I was doing was keeping the business alive, and I guess I have to accept that. We are still alive, and I was doing a lot of the reporting and writing in the immediate aftermath of that, so. But it weighs heavily on me, you know. So anyway, sorry, that was a long answer to your question.
MG: No, that’s a gut-wrenching story, which also shows how community journalism is not mainstream journalism and how this story — the stories about Harvey aren’t just about Harvey.
MG: So thinking more about the newspaper’s role as a community paper during these moments, it sounds like, evidently, during the actual floods — the actual moment [0:47:00] of the flood and the immediate aftermath that you see the role of the paper as, you know, reporting on what was happening as a way to inform the community and also assist the community. How do you see the role of the paper afterwards as things unfold?
MD: Sure, so — and again, I’ll make a comparison with the mainstream press, which does a great job in terms of like talking to elected officials, and covering the innerworkings of FEMA, and that sort of thing. I could do that, and I could spend a lot of time with that. But I’m really more interested in like what individual families are going through, and their emotional state, and what they need in terms of community resources.
And so the stories that I prefer to talk about have to do with what individual families are going through. And maybe I’m a cockeyed [0:48:00] optimist, but I do like to report happy endings. Maybe that’s just a Jewish thing, right? Hatikvah, we try to talk about the hope. Because in my mind, if I can report a hopeful story and somebody who is struggling to find hope gets a hold of that story, then they can see that, “Well, if this person is able to work through their challenges, then that’s going to help me.” It’s going to be a source of inspiration. And so I try to find the good stories.
You know, we need to talk about the worm in the apple, too, but I think we need to talk about the apple a lot as well. And so I really seek out those people who amazingly are resilient, who have lost so much so many times, and yet know how to get back on their feet and do it in the context of community and in the context of family. Because they know they’re a piece of that. And if they can uphold [0:49:00] their end of that, then it’s going to give strength and encouragement to other people to do the same thing. Because it really is a community effort to recover from these things as much as it is a family and individual effort. I think we have to be mindful of both.
And so the reporting that I try to do touches on those different sensibilities. Like for the one-year Harvey story, I could have interviewed families that have had a divorce in the aftermath of these flooding events, because it has happened. And I’ve talked to those people with the intent of potentially writing those stories, but what I’ve learned is that these are, in some cases, relationship problems that preexisted. And these floods just kind of bring more sunlight to those problems and maybe make the gaps a little wider. And so it’s maybe a little dishonest to say that that’s Harvey’s fault. And so do I want to go air a family’s dirty laundry on why [0:50:00] they really got divorced? I just don’t find news value in that. So instead, I like to talk to the families that somehow Harvey has brought them closer together or has actually strengthened their marriages — has actually strengthened their parenting abilities, how they view their own children and look to their children for strength and what not.
So for example, I talked to Marisa and Harry Brown, which are in the UOS community, who have moved six times in three years. And they’re more in love with each other than ever before. Their marriage is stronger than ever before just by all these horrible setbacks financially and physically. They’re still displaced right now. They’re still in a tiny apartment right now. They still don’t know how they’re going to be paying for their children’s day school tuition in one case and college tuition in another. They’ve been on an elevation grant that never materialized after three years of being kind of kept in limbo on that [0:51:00], but yet, they seem to be stronger than ever. And so being able to tell that story, I hope, will be able to be an inspiration for other people who are still looking to find some hope in their own circumstances, yeah.
MG: One thing I’ve learned from doing these interviews, which in some way reflects or resembles interviews or the conversations you have during reporting, is that there’s such a range of stories, right? Like even if we’re going to think about the hopeful ones, there’s even still a range. So how do you decide which stories to cover?
MD: Yeah, I’d like to say that I have a very good idea, and I’m very well-balanced. But in a way, I think I internalize it, because if I’m feeling despair personally and I’m still trying to struggle to process all the loss and pain, I’m in search of a hopeful story [0:52:00]. And so I probably editorialize, and I’ll admit it — that I editorialize, right? Like it’s — it was a difficult process to a do a one-year reflective piece on Harvey, which we just did this past — two issues ago, I guess, now. Because it just reopens all the wounds that never really healed to begin with. And so I guess, as a coping — personal coping mechanism, I sought out positive stories.
But I know that I need to talk about the hard things, too, so again, another story I did was — and one of the ones that I keep coming back to is these kids like who go out and save lives and the impact of that — and asking, you know, a 16-year-old who did that a year ago what his life has been like in the last 12 months. Because adults are very comfortable, I think, in a more positive way now talking about PSD — PTSD and the effects of that. But I don’t [0:53:00] know if we’re really talking to kids about that. Some schools are, I guess, perhaps, but so we talked about that and what those struggles have been like — but then also what those kids have done with the experiences. Again, I do want some hopefulness even in tough stories. And so you know, we talked about how those experiences of saving lives have guided them towards their potential college and career aspirations.
And in one case, one of these kids now wants to be a doctor. He spent a gap year in Israel this past year. And of all the things he could have done with some volunteer time, he chose to work with Magen David Adom. And you know, his first job was reviving a person who they found dead initially when they arrived. And after an hour of CPR, they saved this life — this man’s life and brought him back. And now, he wants to go be Pre-Med. And I think those are the really important stories to talk about, because it shows, I guess, the legacy of these tragic events and what you can do in a [0:54:00] positive way in response to those. So I hope that answered the question. I’m always in search of hope, you know, and that’s my own bias. Any reporter who says he or she is not biased is not being — not being very honest about that, so.
MG: Sure, because choices have to be made.
MD: A hundred percent. And you know, we have, in a small operation, a lot of editorial control. I mean, my grandmother trusts me in terms of what stories I want to report — and you know, as limited as they are unfortunately, so.
MG: I read a little bit about professional responses, too. These stories, the newspaper, and then individual reporters, including you, won awards based on this reporting. So I’d like to shift to talk about the responses. And so can you speak a little bit more about the professional responses and how that has felt? And then, of course [0:55:00], that’s not the same thing as personal responses — so the personal responses to the newspaper coverage during Harvey and after and how that’s felt?
MD: Yeah, sure. So can I start with the second one on the personal stuff?
MD: Yeah, we’ve been fortunate. You know, we do get positive feedback. It’s a lot easier and more typical, I think, to get a phone call or an email when people are upset about certain ways we covered a story — didn’t cover a story. But with the Harvey situation and flood reporting in general, people have taken the time to say like, “You guys really kept us informed. You let us know what was happening in terms of where to get resources — what certain challenges would be so that when we were in those situations, we kind of knew a better way to navigate those with insurance or with FEMA. And so I’m proud of that, I guess.
Again, I’d rather not [0:56:00] even have to be in a situation to be able to do those sorts of things, but of all of those types of phone calls or responses, I guess, the ones that I’m most proud of about are like kids, again, who are maybe on a gap year program in Israel or away from college and really had no idea how to get in touch with the people that they care about back in Houston, have said that our reporting enabled them to do so. And we — through partnerships that we have with like JTA, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and other Jewish newspapers in Israel, I was on the phone multiple times with the London Jewish Chronicle folks. And through their own reporting — just through that network, I guess, more people who cared about Houston kind of stayed informed. And it’s nice to know that we played a role in that, you know. That’s our job at the end of the day, of course — is to get people connected, especially in times of crisis when things are — needs are so [0:57:00] great.
Now, when you ask about the professional responses, do you mean like what Federation did and JFS did? Or FEMA?
MG: Yeah, how have institutions responded to the coverage?
MD: Oh, okay, yeah, so I hope in a positive way. We have a good partnership with Federation even though we don’t receive an allocation or anything along those lines. But they’ve been very good about getting numbers to us and the work that they do to us. And so we feel like we’re a partner with them. They’ve done record fundraising in response to Harvey but also in previous flooding events, too. And so for the most part, I think they’ve been pleased with that. With this one-year anniversary issue, for example, through our partnership with Federation, it’s not just our subscribers who got copies of that. But everybody on the Federation’s mailing list got [0:58:00] copies of that. So that helps us increase our reach and our ability to keep people connected. So for the most part, I think they’ve been pleased.
I think JFS also has, and they are certainly one of the heroes in the Harvey story — not just in the Jewish community but outwardly, because they’re a United Way agency. And they help a lot of people outside of that. I think the schools, which have been in very difficult situations seem to be fairly happy about it, too, because we try to get a lot of reporting on what they’re doing. And maybe people who were upset decided not to weigh in so much, because they know it’s a tough situation. And we’re just doing the best job that we can. You know, I think most people know that we’re a small operation, so the expectations are, you know, I guess, relative to that, you know, understanding. So if there have been a lot of complaints, I haven’t really heard them. But I will always want to hear what [0:59:00] we can do better, so.
MG: You’ve given a great sense of the Jewish Herald-Voice’s role in the community during Harvey and after. Is there anything you want to add before we end the interview?
MD: Oh, sure. Let me think about that. I guess I’ll just reiterate the fact it’s really hard to do a job when you also have a responsibility to help the people that you care about. We’re a small operation, so we have to make some tough choices on — if I have six hours to get something done, do I spend three of that, you know, writing and taking pictures and then the next three of that actually like carrying destroyed things out of somebody’s house onto their front lawn? And that affects our ability to do our job of course, because we’re dividing our time.
But if I was only carrying around the notepad and the camera, I don’t think I could sleep at night, you know, not being able to also [1:00:00] try to physically help somebody that I care about — or just connect them with the resource that I know. Because JFS couldn’t get information out quick enough about what was available. JCC couldn’t get information out quick enough about what was available for what they were doing for folks. And so you know, the minute I speak to Joel Dinkin at the JCC, and the next person I talk to, not only am I interviewing them, but I’m also telling them, “You need to go over to the JCC right now. And you’re the first person to know, because, you know, I just found this information out. So you get the scoop, I guess.” And so, in a way, I like that aspect of the job. So I know I probably mentioned that already once before, but I’ll just kind of reiterate that, so.
MG: Thank you so much for sharing your story.
MD: Yeah, thank you. Awesome.
MG: Greatly appreciate it.
MD: Of course.
MG: So that will end the interview.
MD: Cool. I hope this adds something to the project, yeah?
MG: It definitely adds an angle that —
MG: – gels well with the interviews [1:01:00] we’ve conducted but also offers a different perspective.
MD: Okay, cool. Well, good, I hope it was worth your time then.
MG: Thank you.
MD: Thank you. [1:01:08]