By Carrie Dindino
The April slayings on the Virginia Tech campus underscored the need for posting information fast and in sometimes unfamiliar formats, journalists said at Friday's APME session on lessons learned from the tragedy.
It also prompted some editors to push reporter to suppress the urge to fully report their stories before sending them on.
"It is described as the first real multimedia event," said Carole Tarrant, editor of The Roanoke Times. "No one asked why would we put this on the Web. They asked how fast can we put this on the Web."
Publishing quickly requires reporters who are cross trained, and it requires cooperation between news agencies, the panelists said.
On the morning of April 16, 33 people died on the campus of Virginia Tech, including student Cho Seung-Hui, who shot himself after shooting 32 others.
The first two were shot in a dorm at 7:15 a.m. About 2 hours later, Cho killed 30 others in Norris Hall, and wounded 15.
"After 10 o'clock we switched to updating information on a blog," said Peggy Bellows, managing editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "Before 11:30 a.m. the reporter (Joe Macenka) had updated the blog more than 30 times," she said.
"Later, we took the blog entry and turned that into a story for our print extra."
By the end of the day the staff at the Richmond-Times Dispatch had updated their blog more than 50 times, she said.
Bellows stressed the need for reporters to move quickly.
"Make it good enough and get back in the field," she said.
This was a message echoed by all the panelists.
"There cannot be any delay, because if there is, (readers) will go somewhere else," said Christopher Ritter, online director for the Collegiate Times, the independent student-run paper at Virginia Tech.
This became an issue for Ritter and the Colligate Times when their main server crashed around 11 a.m., he said. The website had to be completely rebuilt from the bottom up that morning, to allow for the constant update of information, Ritter said.
To handle the intense traffic, Ritter said he had to borrow hosting space from the university as well as get the site's provider to upgrade its Web space to the maximum availability. Editors also had to turn off their content management system and drop an archives search, he said.
Technical issues weren't the only problems journalists faced while covering the massacre.
Josh Meltzer, staff photographer at The Roanoke Times, arrived at Virginia Tech the day after the shootings. He got to the campus two hours before the scheduled press conference, but the press room was already packed, he said.
"I immediately decided to skip the press conference," he said. "As visual and multimedia reporters, there was no way we could get a good shot or compete with all the satellite trucks."
Instead Meltzer, and the reporters with him, decided to focus on more visual stories. One of the reporters who was using a camcorder for the first time found students on campus that were giving out free hugs.
"It was important in helping the community heal," he said.
Reporters need to know how to use cameras, and photographers need to be able to take notes, Meltzer said. He stressed the need for every reporter in the newsroom to be able to produce a multimedia story.
Meltzer himself switched roles while covering the massacre and collected audio during a candlelight vigil for the victims. The sound of mourners singing "Amazing Grace" was mixed with photos from other Roanoke Times photographers to produce a moving slideshow, he said.
"The viewer is just experiencing. It gives them a chance to step back from the mass of information and updates," he said.
Being cross trained is not always enough, though, in a breaking news situation, Bellows said.
"Lean on your friends. It is going to be harder than you think."
Reporters from the Richmond Times-Dispatch had a three-and-a-half-hour drive to Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Va. Though they had laptops to edit and send still photos, they didn't have a way to transmit video, Bellows said.
Bellows said the paper contacted a local television affiliate in Roanoke. The station let the print reporters use their editing equipment, she said. It was one of many cooperative arrangements worked out between the news agencies covering the story, she said.