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From AJR,   December 2001  issue

Small Paper, Big story   

Hometown dailies across the country chased local angles in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.


By Joan Hennessy
Joan Hennessy, a former editor and reporter for Jacksonville’s Florida Times Union, is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance writer.      

"It is as if we are expecting the next explosion to happen, the next anthrax-tainted envelope to be mailed and we are aware it can happen in Shreveport just as easily as it can happen in New York City or Washington, D.C." -- From an October column by Byron McCauley, editorial page editor, Shreveport, Louisiana's Times

It was October 10, nearly a month after the day that hijacked commercial airliners slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Sitting in his office at the Times of Shreveport, Louisiana, Byron McCauley, editorial page editor, heard the distinctive thunder of fighter jets overhead. It made him uneasy--a feeling he quickly dismissed. After all, Shreveport is home to Barksdale Air Force Base.

In the office next door, editors at a 3 p.m. planning meeting also heard the jets. A reporter monitoring the police scanner interrupted to tell them of events unfolding: A commercial airliner was making a forced landing--with fighter jet escort – in Shreveport.

McCauley walked out of his office and into the newsroom. In his column, he recounted:

"Someone mentioned a plane going down. Shreveport. Not again."

The town near Louisiana's western border was taking an unexpected turn in the spotlight. A cryptic note written by an airline passenger prompted the pilot to request a fighter jet escort and make an emergency landing.

"It's to the point where you realize, as journalists, that anything can happen," says Judy Pace Christie, the newspaper's editor. "Would [the airplane] crash? What if this plane was shot down?" So there it was: The war on terror meets America's backyard.

From the beginning, the story of the September 11 attacks and the nation's military response has been simultaneously national and local in scope. But smaller papers are not just turning out reaction stories and feature pieces on Islam. Papers from Arizona to Maine are breaking news on a global story.

The emergency landing in Shreveport--an incident in which passengers were unharmed and a suspect was arrested--was not the first time the city found itself center stage. In fact, the Times used its Web site on September 11 to break news that President Bush's plane had landed at Barksdale Air Force Base.

Throughout the country, local newspapers are tracking war stories through smaller cities, suburbs and towns.

• In Maine, the Portland Press Herald/ Maine Sunday Telegram has written in detail about the local connections of two of the hijackers who spent their last night in Portland.

• Reporters covering Fort Bragg for North Carolina's Fayetteville Observer have interviewed analysts about the work of secretive special forces.

• And the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Arizona, nailed details about one of the hijackers, who lived in the community, while breaking news about another man questioned in connection with the case.

"This isn't a story about New York or the Pentagon," observes Jim Ripley, executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. "It is a story about America. It is not a reaction story. It's not your typical, something happens in Washington and we all react."

Yet even as they recount details of stories and reporters' countless hours of work, editors say they have confronted issues that, in retrospect, have spotlighted the weaknesses as well as the strengths of their coverage.

"Here at the Observer, we have been faced with a number of questions. Some of them have gone like this: 'Did you hear that such-and-such unit from Bragg has already been shipped out? Yep, I know it because my kid plays soccer with this soldier's kid, and he doesn't know where his dad is now and, well, you know what that means.' "What does it mean? And if his dad has been shipped out, what can we say and what should we report?" --From an October column by Charles Broadwell, editor and publisher, North Carolina's Fayetteville Observer

Fayetteville is a city in eastern North Carolina, a stop off Interstate 95 and home to Fort Bragg.

As described by Editor and Publisher Charles Broadwell, the Fayetteville Observer's reporting staff is a mix of youth and experience. It's a formula commonly found in newspapers: a corps of pros and a cadre of younger, energetic types who may have spent the Persian Gulf War worrying about algebra and prom dates.

Broadwell has used his column to describe frankly to readers the challenges local newspapers face with war coverage.

"At the Observer," Broadwell wrote, "we hear a lot of rumors and sometimes will even do stories about some that are rippling through the community. We don't want to take the conjecture too far. We don't want to jeopardize secret operations. We also don't want to be in the position of having to report one morning that, oh, by the way, the entire 82nd Airborne Division was shipped out over the weekend."

The week after the attack, Fayetteville editors sent a reporter to the Southern Pines community, where many of Fort Bragg's special forces soldiers reside. The reporter discovered that the community's soldiers had been "disappearing," called to duty but forbidden to tell loved ones where exactly they were going or what they would be doing.

The story about Southern Pines is just one example, Broadwell says, "of how we can distinguish ourselves with our coverage."

Up north in Maine, the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram also focused on local connections.

In the days after the attack, the newspaper did its best to answer questions that disturbed everyone: Who were the hijackers and why did they do this?

Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari flew out of Portland September 11. The night before, they ordered food at a Pizza Hut, shopped at the Wal-Mart and slept at a Comfort Inn in South Portland. The story about their last hours was pursued by national media organizations.

"We had more detail...where they'd been, who saw them, what the motel workers remember and thought about them," says Eric Conrad, the paper's managing editor.

The paper also zeroed in on areas in town at risk for security breaches--the border to the north, a former nuclear plant and the port. It had a story about the police chief's accusations that the FBI was hurting its own investigation by not sharing enough information with local authorities.

And all this amid stiff competition: The New York Times and the Boston Globe sent reporters to Portland, too.

"We've had to compete with papers that we haven't had to compete with," Conrad says. The New York Times, he points out, is in a better position to work federal sources. "They've had people on those beats forever."

He says the paper held its own, though there was a learning curve.

"What we've found is that our local and state police system and approach is still strong. We know those people. They know us," he says. Where the paper needs work is with federal and regional sources. "That's where we wish we were bigger and had better source work over the years."

Editors at Mesa, Arizona's East Valley Tribune say every story they've printed has been hard-earned. That includes the story of the first man killed in an alleged post-attack hate crime, a Sikh who owned a filling station in Mesa.

"Police were being real coy," says Ripley, the executive editor. "They would not publicly release the name of the suspect. We were into the neighborhoods and figured out who he was. So I'm very proud of that, as you can tell. I think we scrambled and worked it hard."

This, of course, is what local newspapers do best--work local sources. In one Washington Post story about the attacks, a line of information about an Algerian pilot taken into custody in England was attributed to the East Valley Tribune. Ripley enjoyed teasing his reporters about that.

Still, he says getting information from federal sources has been problematic.

"We've been disappointed," Ripley said. "They should be speaking to the public. We get very little if any conversation.... I think they've got to realize that people need information. This isn't cloak and dagger. People are scared. They're scared everywhere."

Jeff Benson rounded the corner into the newsroom last Sunday afternoon carrying a plate of food--chicken and dressing, ham, homemade rolls, beans and banana pudding. The news of the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan had interrupted Sunday dinner for Benson, our Page One editor, who lives in Minden and was headed for lunch at his mother-in-law's.... He was one of many news staffers who stopped what they were doing at noon last Sunday and began to think about how to get the news to our readers, both online and in the newspaper. --From an October column by Judy Pace Christie, editor, Shreveport, Louisiana's Times.

Judy Pace Christie's voice, and the voice of her writing too, is punctuated with a Southern twang.

She says the selfless way her staff has responded to events during the past two months warms her heart. She had them all over to her house one Sunday in October for a thank you party.

But Christie also knows the darker realities of management: "In a smaller market," she says, "your bench is a little thinner, and you have to call on the same people over and over."

Jeff Perlman's staffers are more tired than he has ever seen them. He's vice president of product development for the Boca Raton News. The paper's editorial office is within a couple hundred yards of the offices of American Media Inc., the tabloid publishing company that lost a photo editor to anthrax. That made Boca home to the seminal event of the anthrax story.

"Of course, we've never had a story as big as this," Perlman says. "But I think we're competing with people and in some cases we're beating them."

Sandwiched between the territory of behemoths like the South Florida's Sun-Sentinel to the south and the Palm Beach Post to the north, the Boca Raton News is a locally owned paper with a circulation of about 13,480. It has eight news writers. Most are young, ambitious and tackling their first huge story.

The paper's strength, Perlman says, is its ties to the community. People in the area think of the Boca Raton News as the hometown paper. But the weakness is "not having enough horses to chase down everything we're getting. There is almost a triage situation where you figure out which [tips] sound most credible."

During the summer, the staff of Minnesota's St. Cloud Times was down six people--the result of attrition and cutting part-time hours, says Susan Ihne, executive editor. In a prescient move, she decided to have the sports copy desk cross-train on the news desk.

On September 11, the paper's staff--with new recruits on board but still down two--planned 18 open pages of coverage. Meanwhile, sports events were canceled. The cross- training paid off. Sports staffers helped produce the mammoth news section.

Even so, it was a challenge. "I have a lot of new people," Ihne says. "We have a new copy desk."

Ihne has navigated coverage for the paper, which has a daily circulation of about 29,000, largely by listening to her busy staff. "We have ethical time outs," she says. As always, reporters can come into her office and question the paper's coverage.

There have been dark days. The sheriff of Sherburne County didn't share with the St. Cloud Times that he had Zacarias Moussaoui in custody. Moussaoui was a flight school student who allegedly wanted to learn how to turn an aircraft, but not necessarily how to take off or land, according to subsequent reports.

"The feds told [the sheriff] to shut up and he did," Ihne says.

The paper learned about the story from a wire service. That stung.

It's easy to feel out-gunned and out-resourced on such a story. "We don't have 30 people in Central Asia who can help us out," says Broadwell, the Fayetteville editor.

The Fayetteville newspaper's forte is cutting straight through a complicated matter to the impact events have on citizens and the local economy in a community where the center of gravity is Fort Bragg. "We are uniquely positioned to tell that story better than anyone," Broadwell says.

For Brian Cole, an assistant managing editor of the East Valley Tribune, this is done story by story, with focused concentration. Cole's reporters tracked down a traffic ticket given to Algerian Lotfi Raissi-- a pilot arrested in London--at a time Raissi said he was not in the United States.

"You can go head to head with a much larger competitor if you've got a defined story," he says, referring to the well-known competitor overshadowing his newspaper, the Arizona Republic. "We don't take a back seat."

Since the attacks, local police, the FBI and Maine citizens have asked themselves similar questions: Were there people in Maine who helped [Mohamed] Atta prepare for the nation's worst terrorist attack? Why would Atta, the suspected mastermind of the hijackings, choose the Portland area to spend his last night?

"Local citizens have told the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram about seeing Atta with other people in Portland in the weeks, months and even hours before the attacks. --From an October 21 story by Barbara Walsh, writer, the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

Conrad, managing editor in Portland, says his paper's work isn't finished. "There's a bit of a mystery as to why Portland has had the role it's had. We don't want to get beat when that mystery gets cleared up. We want that to be ours."

Circulation at the paper is up 1,500 a day. Immediately after the attack, it was higher, Conrad says. "For a paper of 74,000 [daily, 125,000 on Sunday], that's significant.... Still over a month later, we're sustaining significant increases."

But there is another perspective on the competitive focus of the story.

"My gut reaction is that, as someone who watched what happened, [hijackers] chose Portland airport, which is a Podunk airport," says Sam Pfeifle, managing editor of the Portland Phoenix, a weekly with a circulation of 45,000. "So they drove up here and used our lax security. It's not a slam. We're a small town."

Dailies focus on "the 90 percent of the people who are in George Bush's approval rating and the 90 percent who are supporting him," Pfeifle says. "The 10 percent who have questions or are pacifists are under the radar screen.... It's something that we are making a concerted effort to pay attention to."

Pfeifle says he has focused on the political issues. "It's more a theoretical debate on how can we be a peace-loving nation and defend ourselves. It's how Mainers perceive the macro ideas involved in this."

At the Press Herald, Conrad says he is also conscious of the paper's mission to keep covering its community. "It is something that we're very aware of," Conrad says. "People need us to pay attention to tax hikes and school issues and all the things that the midsize community paper does. It is an interesting tightrope to walk right now."

The Fayetteville Observer is where the locals can catch up on city politics. But recently, stories about the war and layoffs at a large local employer absorbed the front page. So editors referred to a B1 mayoral primary story with a promotional box on page one. This is a situation that Broadwell, the editor, could imagine "at no other time."

In the first days after the attack, the intense focus was on the news itself, the firing off of special editions and all the stories that filled them. Then there was the search for local angles, the business of keeping up with war developments and anthrax scares. Then came the integration of terrorism and war coverage into the routine.

Newspapers in smaller communities have a strong sense of their mission. Ihne, the St. Cloud editor, says, "Our franchise is local news."

The hardest question, she adds, was, "When do we go back to putting anything on page one?" The paper competes for readers with Minneapolis' Star Tribune, which circulates in the market. The St. Cloud Times must keep pace, she says, "or they're going to take the market."

Even in Boca Raton, where the focus on anthrax was intense, editors worried about ensuring that they were keeping up with everything else. "We have eight writers, and they're not all on that [anthrax] story," Perlman says. "We're trying to cover the community and not just be all anthrax all the time. Life is going on."

There is a desire to get back to regular coverage, for normalcy, says Shreveport's Christie.

In a world where townsfolk hold their collective breaths as commercial airliners land with fighter jet escorts and anthrax arrives in the mail, normal is easier said than done.

Says Christie: "I don't think we know what normal is."

McCauley, the Shreveport editorial page editor, pulls on latex gloves these days to open his mail. Expecting the unexpected.

"A lot of us around here have said we've all become crime reporters," he says. "We're covering terrorism."

Joan Hennessy, a former editor and reporter for Jacksonville's Florida Times Union, is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance writer