Dana Williams has covered a lot of disasters during her three-decade career as a reporter and editor.
Hurricanes in Florida. Typhoons and earthquakes on Guam. Even, once, a volcanic eruption in Hawaii.
But the potential for disaster now facing Guam, where Williams works as executive editor of the island’s largest daily newspaper, feels different. There’s no storm bearing down, no clouds of ash billowing on the horizon, no wind whipping the trees.
“It’s completely unknown,” Wiliams said. “Is it going to get resolved with a talk? What’s going to happen? Nobody knows.”
The war of words between President Trump and Kim Jong-un hasn’t gone beyond talk yet. But The Pacific Daily News, a 20-person outlet on Guam’s west coast, is taking the story seriously. The reporters, editors, visual journalists, designers and audience mavens at the Gannett-owned newspaper have mobilized: Reporting on a plea for peace from Archbishop Michael Byrnes, leader of Guam’s sizable Catholic population; livestreaming video from Gov. Eddie Calvo’s North Korea press conference; warning readers to avert their eyes from a sudden flash or fireball if the unthinkable should happen.
For many readers back on the U.S. mainland, the possibility of a conflict with North Korea, while frightening, does not pose an imminent threat. But for the U.S. territory of Guam, which is a key strategic waypoint for American military forces, the potential for mayhem from a nuclear-armed North Korea is more immediate. In response to President Trump’s pledge to rain “fire and fury” on the totalitarian state if it continues threatening the United States, dictator Kim Jong-un has announced a plan to fire four missiles near Guam.
Although locals are trying to go about their business as usual, The Pacific Daily News can tell residents and their families across the ocean are monitoring the situation very closely, said Masako Watanabe, consumer experience manager at the newspaper. Every time they publish a new story about North Korea, concurrent visitors to the website double. This sudden spike in attention varies in size and length, and it’s sparked in part by push notifications and text alerts from the newspaper.
The standoff has provided good fodder for print design, too. On Thursday, the day after President Trump’s bellicose rhetoric on the possibility of confrontation, the newspaper published a front page that threw the dire situation into sharp relief:
— Guam PDN (@GuamPDN) August 10, 2017
The headline was a collaborative effort, said Steve Limtiaco, news director of The Pacific Daily News. His original headline was “14 minutes to Guam,” referencing the amount of time it would take North Korean missiles to reach the island. Watanabe shaved the prepositional phrase off the end of the headline and fitted it on the page.
“We thought, ‘This is it, this is the point we want to convey to someone walking by the (newspaper) box on the road,'” Watanabe said.
Since President Trump’s “fire and fury” statement on Wednesday, the newsroom has thrown itself into the escalating story, Williams said. Staffers at The Pacific Daily News share the concerns of the community they cover. But they have a job to do.
“I think it doesn’t matter if you’re in the newsroom or out of the newsroom. Nuclear war — that’s going to affect you no matter where you work. This is a small island. …But there’s nothing any of us can do. You just have to go on and live your life. And, in our case, cover the news.”