By Chris Adams
To say it’s been a busy dozen years for Peter Kovacs is putting it mildly.
Kovacs, the National Press Foundation’s Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year for 2016, is the editor of The Advocate, a South Louisiana paper with editions in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Lafayette. NPF judges said Kovacs “demonstrated great leadership in extremely challenging times,” a reference to two major Baton Rouge stories from the summer of 2016: a high-profile police shooting and a devastating flood.
For Kovacs, being tested in such trying circumstances has become the hallmark of an eventful career. In a Master Class video with NPF, Kovacs talked about those dramatic 2016 stories – as well as what got him to Baton Rouge in the first place.
Kovacs was managing editor at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans when that city was devastated in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. The Times-Picayune famously had to flee the flood waters, with much of its news staff decamping to temporary quarters in Baton Rouge. Despite that, The Times-Picayune put out a digital and print news product that was a lifeline for the city. The coverage won two Pulitzer Prizes (public service and breaking news reporting) and was cited as one of the top 10 works of journalism in the decade.
New Orleans was on its way to recovery when The Times-Picayune got caught in the faltering Great Recession economy that saw widespread news layoffs and bankruptcies. The Times-Picayune went through downsizing as well, and then in 2012 was hit with a bombshell: The paper was going to limit print publication to three days a week and dramatically cut its staff. Kovacs heard about the plan – and how he was out of a job – from a late-night post in The New York Times; the fallout from the news shocked the staff and the city.
Within the year, Kovacs was in Baton Rouge, now as editor of The Advocate, which has made a high-profile push on The Times-Picayune’s New Orleans turf.
In the interview with NPF, Kovacs describes business challenges as well as journalistic ones. That was clearly evident in July and August 2016, when Baton Rouge was the focus of two major news events.
First was the police shooting of a black man – one of several such events in the nation – that brought widespread protests and then the killing of three law enforcement officers in single day. Only a couple weeks after things quieted down, Baton Rouge was hit with major flooding that affected a quarter of the homes in the area.
“It’s always a challenge to cover the news, but over the summer we found ourselves covering the news and living the news in the same moment,” he said.
Kovacs talked about how the newsroom executed its coverage plan – from using helicopters for aerial photography to helping employees complete their jobs even as they dealt with flooding in their own homes. “It was amazing to me to watch the dedication of people who had a job to do,” he said. Those employees showed up and did their jobs “with one side of the brain” – all the while processing with the other side the fact that their house was possibly flooding.
“People just took it in stride, and kept working,” he said.
The paper later organized teams to help fellow employees gut their waterlogged homes. They called themselves “muckrakers.”
Note: NPF Director of Training Chris Adams, who wrote this article and conducted the Master Class video, worked with Peter Kovacs in New Orleans from 1989-2006. He was not part of the NPF award-judging panel.