Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

April 17, 2013

Newsroom team pulls together again for coverage of unfolding tragedy

— — Coverage of the deadly bombing attacks on Boston Monday proved to be another team effort for those of us in the newsroom. But the challenge of the day was actually quite different from that of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Twelve years ago our primary task was getting a special edition — or “Extra” — of the newspaper ready, and out on the streets, in a short span of a couple of hours. Reporters in the newsroom worked to localize the terror attacks — talking to local residents, law enforcement and aviation officials, among many others, about how the unfolding events would forever change our world. It was a total team effort, and our first Extra since the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II. “Hawkers” took the Extra editions onto the street for sale. Vehicles were lined up in our parking lot and down Bluefield Avenue waiting to purchase the Extra edition — a keepsake chronicling the events of that dark day in American history. One newspaper boy sold 935 copies of the edition in the parking lot.

A lot has changed in a short span of 12 years. We now live in a day of instant communication — constant website updates, tweets, e-mail blasts and direct Facebook communications with thousands upon thousands of our Facebook “friends.” Our task Monday was getting the news out immediately, and constantly updating it, to our readers online and, ultimately, in our print edition.

We knew our nation was under attack on Sept. 11, 2001. But there was a lot of confusion Monday concerning just what was happening. Was it a terrorism attack? Was it some terrible accident? Those urgently needed answers were slow to develop, adding to the confusion of the moment.

We were in the middle of covering a significant tractor-trailer collision that left both southbound lanes of Interstate 81 closed to traffic when the first images of what was being reported as an explosion at the Boston Marathon appeared on television. Minutes later the first advisories came across the Associated Press wire of a blast at the marathon — and scores of possible injuries. It looked suspicious, but no one was jumping to say the word “terrorism.” A few minutes later we were told there were two explosions.

That’s when a red flag went up. One explosion could have been an accident. Two explosions meant it was likely not. Soon there were reports of a third explosion at the JFK Library — an event that later proved to be simply an unrelated fire — and media alerts of other possible bombs, or devices, being found across the city. It felt like 9/11 all over again, albeit on a slightly smaller scale. But it was still unclear at that point if the incident was a terrorist attack. It looked like a coordinated operation. And the intent of the bomber or bombers was to injure or kill scores of innocent people.

From that standpoint it certainly met the definition of a terrorism attack. Still, the stories coming across the Associated Press wire refrained from using the word terrorism.

And when President Barack Obama addressed the nation a few hours after the event, he, too, didn’t use the word terrorism, adding to the confusion of the day. Three people were dead, including a small child, and more than 150 had been injured in the bombing attacks. A significant national tragedy was unfolding.

My challenge throughout the day was updating our online website — every couple of minutes — with the latest developments concerning the Boston attacks. Such was not the case 12 years ago during the attacks of 9/11. Back then our primary focus was on putting out the Extra edition. We knew 12 years ago that America was under attack. The events in Boston were largely clouded in mystery. But we still pulled together as a team — delivering constant updates online — and complete coverage of the tragedy for our print edition. We even located a local resident, a graduate of Concord University, who was in Boston when the first bomb went off.

We also couldn’t ignore the local news of the day as reporters and photographers were busy working on several developing stories in the region. Among them: Bluefield’s crackdown on pit bulls, including reports of law enforcement officers going “grid-by-grid” in the city in search of unregistered pit bulls; the horrific I-81 crash involving a tractor-trailer carrying 50,000 pounds of strawberries; a meeting of the local Blueprint Communities committee at the Daily Telegraph; the reopening of the PlanetXtreme Teen Center in Princeton; and a fatal motorcycle accident in McDowell County.

It goes without saying that this wasn’t the way we planned on starting our week. But in this business we know how to roll with the punches, and how to quickly stop what we are doing and start all over from scratch. Such was the case on Monday.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com. Follow him @BDTOwens.

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