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From AJR,   July/August 1999  issue

Lessons Learned   

Related reading:   Covering The Big One

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     


WHEN THE NATIONAL ENQUIRER CALLED Denver Post reporter Susan Greene, she was taken by surprise. She says the supermarket tabloid was desperate for the phone number of a Trench Coat Mafia member at Columbine High School whom Greene had portrayed but not identified in a story. "How could we induce you or how could we make it worth your while to give us the phone number?" Greene says she was asked.
In retrospect, Greene says it would have been helpful if the newsroom staff had discussed in advance how to deal with the outside media when the big story erupts.
Now that the shootings have faded from the front pages, there are some things people at the Post say they would have done differently.
Metro Editor Frank Scandale says he wishes the paper had banished ads from the A-section as soon as the story broke. Instead, the first two days' coverage was wrapped around the "bra and liquor ads," says Scandale. "We should have had uninterrupted space."
He also believes that only one editor should have been in charge of the story log. The first day, Deputy Metro Editor Michelle Fulcher and Scandale both handled it. By the third day, Scandale took over solo.
"We also need to sit down now and look at a capital budget for more and better equipment to ease communications, which were crazy," says Fulcher. "We could use more cell phones [the newsroom has just six] and some more laptops."
Greene says she wishes that she had immediately downloaded from the Internet all the information she could find about the students who carried out the shootings. "My advice is if something breaks in your backyard, download everything about it as soon as you can," she says. "A lot of relevant stuff was taken off the Web within a few hours."
As of AJR's presstime, editors hadn't conducted any kind of all-newsroom debriefing to give reporters and editors a chance to discuss the biggest story many had ever covered. "We really need to sit down and say what went well and what worked and what didn't," says reporter Ann Schrader. "It would be very helpful, since so many of us worked on the story."