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Blizzard provides avalanche of topics.

Sometimes lessons in staff management literally fall from the sky.

When I became The Philadelphia Inquirer's editorial page editor in the summer of 1994, I would not have predicted that snow would ever become a journalistic and managerial challenge.

Naturally, the Blizzard of '96 set me straight.

The record snowstorm and its aftermath - closed schools and businesses, stranded residents, stunning landscapes - provided a shovel-full of editorials and op-ed pieces for more than a week. But first was the question of how to assemble the staff.

Philadelphia is blessed with a livable downtown only a few minutes' walk (in good weather, that is) from the Inquirer, and an extensive system of public transportation. So on Monday, January 8, despite 30 inches of snow and gubernatorial orders to stay off the roads, a few hearty editorial board members were able to get to the office.

I wasn't so lucky, since the usually reliable train near my suburban home never showed up. But fortunately, I could rely on my home computer to edit; so could several other staff members, who worked by modem from home. Editorial cartoonist Tony Auth faxed in a timely cartoon.

By Working Day #2 of the blizzard, all but one board member made it to the office. By then, our attention turned to content.

We knew citizens felt a lot of frustration and anger, primarily in the city, that some streets were not cleared fast enough, and others would not be cleared at all. Mayor Rendell's blunt comments seemed only to make matters worse. So the letters page soon filled with a fascinating debate about the role of government and the responsibility of residents to cope with such a rare and powerful act of nature.

On Sunday, January 15, the Inquirer transformed the entire Review & Opinion section into a keepsake look-back at the snowstorm of the century, the editorial and Commentary pages included.

Our lead editorial argued for more regional planning for these kinds of emergencies. The Commentary page featured short pieces from writers in other cities, explaining how they cope with similar weather. And my regular Sunday column pointed out why Philadelphians are so grumpy about snow. (It dates back to George Washington at Valley Forge.)

I learned a few lessons, if weather of such historic proportions ever visits our way again. Since I'm beginning to believe in forecasting, I'd make sure my staff had assignments in advance if a big one is predicted. Figuring out how staffers can work at home is important - particularly if they have to take vacation days if they aren't working. (That happened at the Inquirer.)

The governance issues related to the snowstorm are with us still, especially since the waist-high snow first iced over and then melted, which caused massive flooding, which led to a spitting match between the governor and the feds over disaster relief.

Snow may be serious weather, but it's also a great story.

NCEW member Jane Eisner is editorial page editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer.
COPYRIGHT 1996 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Letter From Philadelphia
Author:Eisner, Jane
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Mar 22, 1996
Words:497
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