"We Couldn't Ignore It"
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
WHEN IT FIRST GOT WORD of an incident at Columbine High School, the Littleton Independent, a 7,800-circulation weekly, didn't plan to report on it. After all, the paper doesn't generally cover the school, and the copy deadline for the next edition was 3 p.m. that day. Besides, the early talk over the police scanner suggested it might be a senior prank.
But that changed rapidly when the call went out for all available ambulances and staffers heard some of them screaming down Main Street before noon.
"That's when we turned on the TV and paged a photographer and sent a reporter out there," says Kristin North, the paper's editor. "Then we started getting lots of calls from the national media. We decided we'd look stupid if we had a Chambers Farm update [a story about the community's efforts to preserve open space] on the front page and nothing about the shooting. We couldn't ignore it."
When reporter Neil Aho called, North told him: "Go." When sports reporter Mike McNulty finished his story, he headed for the school area with a digital camera. A photographer from a sister paper in Castle Rock headed 30 minutes north to Columbine. During the afternoon, North had five people at the scene while she worked the phones.
She also fielded dozens of calls from the national media. "That part was weird," she says. "They'd call and ask for stuff, as though if we had a big scoop, we would tell them. I didn't understand that mentality."
North tried to tell some of the callers that while the school had a Littleton mailing address, it actually was not in Littleton, but in unincorporated Jefferson County. No one seemed to pay much attention.
By 6 p.m., everyone was back at the office and huddling with North and her assistant editor, Jeremy Bangs. By the time North and Bangs left the paper at 1 a.m., they'd remade the front page and had five stories on the deadly shooting, six photos and a timeline about past school shootings taken off the Internet.