Panelists at the "Multimedia Lessons from a National Tragedy" session recalled their early coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings, adding this became "the first true multimedia news event," as Carole Tarrant of the The Roanoke (Va.) Times called it.
The panel featured Josh Meltzer, also of The Roanoke Times, Chris Ritter of Virginia Tech's Collegiate Times, and Peggy Bellows of the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch. They joined Tarrant to discuss what it took to get the story out to people quickly, accurately and respectfully.
Tarrant said newspapers should have a "hit-the-fan plan" in place to manage huge numbers of people accessing their sites during major disasters. Organization and server space should play key roles in this plan said Ritter, the online editor of the Collegiate Times.
The Times' server crashed the morning of the shootings. This sent Ritter and staffers to beg and borrow server space from places like College Publisher and Virginia Tech itself, which had faced similar problems that dreadful morning.
Every person covering a major event must have the proper equipment to do so, both Meltzer and Bellows said. That means reporters might need cameras – video or still – in addition to a laptop capable of sending back content for editing and posting to the Web.
When journalists scramble to get the information out quickly and accurately, they must not forget the public, especially those most affected, panelists said. Readers should have the opportunity to express how they feel or what they saw, Ritter said.
Bellows told of a guestbook placed on the Times-Dispatch site. Its 4,300 pages of entries is still growing.
There is also a place for sensitivity, and chances to move stories in different directions than the print product, panelists said. For instance, during the vigil on the night of April 16, Meltzer and other photographers were initially interrupting those in the crowd to write down their names. Meltzer pulled himself away and began to simply record raw audio, he said.
It allowed The Roanoke Times to produce a moving slideshow using the singing and chants, coupled with pictures of the crowd.
-- David Dinsmore