Mobilizing the Troops
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
ON THE DAY OF THE Columbine High School shootings, Editor Casey Ehmsen started work at 3 a.m. Not his normal time, but his copy editor had the week off, and he was pulling double duty to get out one of the three weeklies he edits.
It was Tuesday, April 20. The night before, he'd gotten things set for his 25,000-circulation free weekly, the Columbine Community Courier. Today, he'd get the flagship Canyon Courier, a weekly with a paid circulation of 9,000, put to bed by 5 p.m.
He was working on some back pages in his office when he heard something over his police scanner: "Shots fired at Columbine High School." Ehmsen immediately called a former reporter who now works for the Littleton Fire Department. She told him there were bombs going off and possibly students "down," or shot.
Ehmsen, who was at the company's main office in Evergreen, called reporter Caren Boddie at home. "Casey called me at 11:35 a.m., and I got over there at 11:50 a.m., and there was still shooting going on," she says. "It was incredible. Like a war zone. Helicopters were overhead. Streets were jam-packed with emergency vehicles."
After getting Boddie, 42, Ehmsen yelled for reporter Patrick Fitz-Gerald, 22, to drive 35 minutes southeast to the high school. He sent intern Tom Fildey, 18, and photographer Eric Drummond, 22, to the scene. At 2 p.m., Sports Editor Brian Howell, 24, who had volunteered to help out, was dispatched to a neighboring high school to talk to kids.
"It was kind of frustrating," recalls Ehmsen, 29. "I was laying out Lifestyle pages. I've been a reporter. I really wanted to be down there."
More frustrating was the fact that the office television didn't have cable and the scanner traffic had been shut down for safety reasons. Ehmsen listened to the radio and talked on the phone to people who were watching television.
A further frustration was keeping in touch with staff in the field. The weeklies, owned by Landmark, had earlier won budget approval for two cell phones, but Ehmsen hadn't gotten around to buying them. (The office now has two.)
At 3 p.m., Ehmsen decided to do a four-page special edition for the Columbine paper.
Sometime during the afternoon, Ehmsen learned that President Clinton was going to give a speech about the shootings. When the president started talking, Ehmsen held a tape recorder to the radio. His wife, Jeanne, had come into the office about 5:30 p.m. to trade cars, and he roped her into transcribing the tape. After she finished transcribing, she ran out to Taco Bell to pick up food for the staff.
The special edition went to press at 12:35 a.m. It contained nine stories, a timeline of past school shootings and the text of Clinton's address, along with three photos. The special edition also had something most news organizations didn't: the correct number of deaths. Most papers reported that as many as 25 were dead. Ehmsen's paper reported: "At least 15 dead as teens open fire at Columbine High."
The next morning, Ehmsen was back at the office at 8 a.m. to update the Web site. The day after the shooting, his site got about 1,200 visits, compared to the normal daily total of 120.
"After we got the special edition out," says Ehmsen, "for the next three or four days we treated ourselves like a daily because of the Web site. I told my boss we had extenuating circumstances, and we'll be way over budget for April."