(This article will appear in the next issue of the APME magazine.)
TUCSON -- On Saturday, January 8, 2011, a federal judge and five others were shot dead outside a grocery store. Thirteen people were wounded, including a Southern Arizona congresswoman shot point-blank in the head. Victims were airlifted or drove themselves to four hospitals. A 22-year-old was wrestled to the ground as he tried to reload. U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was dead; no she wasn't. Rants on Facebook. The FBI joined two local police agencies to investigate. National media converge. A mom posts on Facebook that her 9-year-old daughter was one of those killed. The Democratic sheriff blames Republicans.
A national news story plays out across our local landscape.
Now that we have been through such a large tragedy, my advice to fellow editors is, dust off your disaster plan. It should never be more than a year old. The news-gathering technology is changing fast so make sure your plan is up-to-date. We did not have enough smart phones in the field; that oversight is being corrected.
I will suggest the Star have a first-responders group going forward. It was a proud moment to know the entire staff was mobilized in under an hour, but that kind of response was not going to serve us, or our readers, in the long run. We need to have a team(s) that will be called upon during big news events. We haven't worked through the logistics yet, but this would keep the staff fresh. The group(s) needs to include: reporters, web producers, photographers, graphics/design and copy editors. The earlier you can start mapping out your expectations, the easier it will be on deadline.
Have a gatekeeper; our metro editor knew what was being worked on and who was in contact with whom and handled a lot of updating. Make sure you are constantly updating your story budget to avoid duplication. This should be posted prominently on your internal website where the staff can easily access the information.
All of our editors, producers, designers, copy editors, reporters, photographers and support staff were on the same page. That means they must be in the same room. Having online folks down the hall slows the process. Every staff member is part of your news-gathering operation; they must be part of the process from the start.
Keep the focus on your local community. Monitor what the national media are doing, but don¹t get distracted by it. You are more in touch with what your readers want and need.
Look at the entire paper to make sure you are using the right tone. This is critical. We had an annual soccer tournament the following weekend. It is called the Ft. Lowell Soccer Shootout. Everyone in the soccer community knows it and calls it "the shootout." We used the title only on first reference and thereafter referred to it as a soccer tournament. We did not use "shootout" in any headlines, kicker or jumps. Every story in the paper has to carry the same tone or you undercut all the hard work done on the big, breaking story.
In addition, we will not use the words "heal" or "healing" in our paper. We are so far from healing that it would be insulting to those barely coming to terms with the loss of a loved one, friend or neighbor. All the funerals were played on the front page. These were our friends and neighbors and needed to be treated equally.
Have a social-media policy. Ask permission and verify all content before you take it from a social-network website.