Sandy Hook coverage shows scope of Digital First teamwork

One product of Digital First Media's collaborative coverage of the Sandy Hook massacre was a 12-page special commemorative section featuring contributions from journalists across the country.
One product of Digital First Media's collaborative coverage of the Sandy Hook massacre was a 12-page special commemorative section featuring contributions from journalists across the country.

Coverage of the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School required unprecedented teamwork across Digital First Media.

As reports began to emerge on that Friday morning, Connecticut Group Editor Matt DeRienzo immediately began mobilizing journalists from all of the DFM newsrooms in Connecticut to cover the story. Other DFM editors sent more than 30 journalists to help with coverage in Connecticut. Still others pitched in from their home newsrooms across the country.

Professional tennis player Andrea Jaeger places roses and mementos at a makeshift memorial near the entrance to the scene of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn.  Photo by Peter Hvizdak / New Haven Register

Professional tennis player Andrea Jaeger places roses and mementos at a makeshift memorial near the entrance to the scene of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. (Peter Hvizdak/New Haven Register)

The resulting coverage doesn’t come close to fitting in the structure of our monthly DFMie awards, which recognize the best work by journalists from each of our eight geographic clusters. Fifteen newsrooms from three different clusters sent staffers to Connecticut to help with the coverage. Three different out-of-state newsrooms, each from a different cluster, sent five or more journalists to help. So did our national Thunderdome newsroom in New York.

“This is DFM at its finest,” East Region Editor Jim McClure, who helped lead the team effort, wrote in one of his daily emails outlining coverage plans. McClure and many of the visiting journalists worked from a DFM satellite newsroom set up at the Heritage Hotel in nearby Southbury.

DFM Editor-in-Chief Jim Brady praised the team effort in a couple of emails to participants:

It was really inspiring to see journalists from all over the country willing to help on this albeit horrific story. Thunderdome is a new model, and one we’re working out on the fly, but I think the folks in Connecticut for the past week understand what it is we’re trying to accomplish, and that’s to improve the overall quality of the journalism, and you were part of that success this week. …

This horrible story has resulted in an unprecedented level of cooperation among this company, and thrilled you were a part of it.

Because DFM colleagues judge the DFMies on top of their regular duties, we limit entries to three links. Which three would we choose for this? Should we have multiple entries — one from this newsroom’s staff, another from that and more from a third? Prize money for winning staff entries goes to a staff party, but a party would be so wrong in relation to this tragic story. We decided the monthly awards simply don’t fit the scope or nature of this story.

We have, of course, submitted Sandy Hook coverage for Pulitzer consideration, but the December DFMies will salute that effort with this still-inadequate account of the teamwork involved.

A firefighter with a young boy stands in line with other Connecticut firefighters from around the state as an honor guard during the funeral for David Barden , 7, of  at the St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newton, Conn.  Photo by Peter Hvizdak / New Haven Register

A firefighter with a young boy stands in line with other Connecticut firefighters from around the state as an honor guard during the funeral for David Barden , 7, of at the St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newton, Conn. (Peter Hvizdak/New Haven Register)

The praise starts with the staffs of our Connecticut newspapers — three dailies (New Haven Register, Middletown Press and Register Citizen in Torrington) and five weeklies (West Hartford News, Litchfield County Times, Fairfield Minuteman, Westport Minuteman, Shoreline Times). The very first people DFM had on the scene were reporters Jack Coraggio and Laurie Gaboardi from the Litchfield County Times. The editor of that paper, Doug Clement, also helped direct early coverage and later served as an editor. Though Newtown isn’t directly in the coverage area of any of those papers, this was still one of the biggest local stories those journalists will ever handle.

Though the Connecticut newsrooms got lots of help, DeRienzo remained in charge of the coverage. All the journalists flocking to Connecticut became part of one coordinated effort, not a national crew coming in to bigfoot the local journalists. DeRienzo summarized the teamwork in December in a post in his Connecticut Newsroom blog:

More than 100 journalists have been involved in the New Haven Register’s Newtown coverage over the past week, including 55 reporters, 17 photographers and 10 main editors on the ground in Connecticut contributing to our coverage. A number of Register reporters and editors worked straight through from first word of the shooting Friday morning to the editing of the story about the final funeral eight days later.

Digital First Media sent 29 reporters and eight photographers from 17 different daily newspapers in Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Colorado and Connecticut, including a team of six from the Denver Post, six from the York Daily Record in Pennsylvania and five from the Lowell Sun in Massachusetts.

The company’s national news office, “Thunderdome,” sent five reporters, five editors, two web producers and a video specialist, and devoted more than a dozen others to help from afar on editing, web production, data and interactives.

And throughout, we had access, advice and assistance from company leaders who’d unfortunately done this before.

Jim McClure, editor of the York Daily Record and East Region editor for Digital First, organized the influx of support from out-of-town journalists for us and was on the ground in Connecticut drawing on his experience covering a 2001 machete attack on a Pennsylvania elementary school. Photographer Tom Kelly IV of the Daily Local News in West Chester, Pa., came with experience covering the Nickel Mines Amish elementary school shooting in 2006.

Helping at our makeshift newsroom just outside of Newtown this past week was Mike Topel, national editor at Digital First Media’s Thunderdome office in New York. He helped lead the AP’s coverage of Columbine in 1999.

Frank Scandale, Digital First’s vice president of print production, helped lead the Denver Post’s Columbine coverage as metro editor. He offered advice from afar and then arrived in New Haven mid-week to help plan a special print edition encapsulating more than a week’s worth of coverage for the Sunday newspaper.

And we were also able to turn to Denver Post Editor Greg Moore, who led intense coverage of the Aurora movie theater shooting earlier this year, and Digital First Editor-in-Chief Jim Brady, who was leading WashingtonPost.Com during the Virginia Tech massacre.

HOPE is spelled out in candle lit bags in front of the Munson Lovetere Funeral Home in Woodbury during the wake for Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung on 12/19/2012. Photo by Arnold Gold/New Haven Register

HOPE is spelled out in candle lit bags in front of the Munson Lovetere Funeral Home in Woodbury during the wake for Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung on 12/19/2012. (Arnold Gold/New Haven Register)

Media coverage the day of the shooting included lots of errors that received heavy attention. The Register’s Pulitzer entry notes that caution served the DFM coverage well:

The first day of coverage was chaotic, with wildly inaccurate reports surfacing from various media outlets. We were aggressive but cautious, diligently attributing information to other outlets when needed but holding off, for example, on posting a widely circulated photo of 24-year-old Ryan Lanza. Contrary to reports by CNN and the Associated Press, he was not the shooter.

Register Managing Editor Mark Brackenbury said “virtually everyone on the staff was involved to some degree. But the reporters who did the most heavy lifting” were Rich Scinto, Jen Swift, Susan Misur, Mike Bellmore, Mark Zaretsky, Ebony Walmsley, Michelle Tuccitto Sullo, Shahid Abdul-Karim and Jim Shelton, lead writer on the special section. Brackenbury also singled out Register photographers Peter Casolino, Peter Hvizdak, Arnold Gold, Mara Lavitt and Melanie Stengel.

“The Breaking News Team folks — Christine Tansey, Rose Iacomacci, PamMcLoughlin, Kaitlyn Yeager and Aaron Smith — had to work especially hard under pressure. Christine was the glue over there,” Brackenbury said.

He also praised the contributions of News Editor Al Santangelo and “my sleep-deprived cohorts” Metro Editor Brian McCready, City Editor Helen Bennett, Connecticut Managing Editor Ben Doody and photo chief Vern Williams.

As mentioned in DeRienzo’s post, McClure coordinated efforts of a SWAT team assembled from newsrooms throughout the East Region of DFM: His York Daily Record news staff sent Brandie Kessler, Rebecca Lefever, John Hilton, Chris Dunn, Lauren Boyer and Randy Parker. The Lowell Sun sent five more: Robert Mills, Evan Lips, Lyle Moran, Sarah Favot and Katie Lannan. The Daily Times of Delaware County, Pa., sent three: Vince Sullivan, Julia Wilkinson and Danielle Lynch. Ten more Eastern newsrooms sent journalists: Frank Otto from the Mercury in Pottstown, Pa.; Jenny DeHuff from the Times Herald in Norristown, Pa.; Kelly from the Daily Local News in West Chester, Pa.; Markell DeLoatch and Jeff Kolb from the Public Opinion in Chambersburg, Pa.; Katy Petiford from the Hanover Evening Sun; Adam Poulisse and Jenn Smith from the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.; Michael Hartwell from the Sentinel & Enterprise in Fitchburg, Mass.; Patricia Doxsey from the Daily Freeman in Kingston, N.Y.; Erica Miller from the Saratogian in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; and James Franco from the Record in Troy, N.Y.

Editor Greg Moore recounts the contributions from the Denver Post:

News Director Kevin Dale and I did two or three conference calls with Jim McClure, Matt DeRienzo and Jim Brady to talk through lessons learned from Columbine and Aurora and to brainstorm some story ideas and approaches.

Vickie Makings, our chief researcher and head of our library, spent two off days working databases to help reporters in Newtown. She used public records to check the Lanzas’ divorce records and locate the Colorado address of the shooter’s uncle, Donald Champion. She also did some property records searching on previous Lanza addresses, adding her info to the Google doc created by Thunderdome to share information.

She also searched each slain child’s last name in an attempt to locate their parents and addresses in the Sandy Hook area. Then, she found cell phones of their neighbors. When asked, she also searched for relatives of the slain teachers and other known teachers at the school.

Damon Cain, our managing editor for design and presentation, designed the two pages on victims that were published in the Newtown special section. Reporter William Porter wrote the opening essay that accompanied the double truck presentation. The pages were plunked into the section.

Design Director Matt Swaney designed the Postcards from Columbine that was also a part of the special section and the stories were produced by reporter Kevin Simpson. The stories had appeared earlier in The Post.

Photo editors Galen Nathanson, Verne Slocum, Don Pavlin, Glen Barber, Katie Wood and Pat Traylor syndicated New Haven-produced Sandy Hook content and additional content from wires for Thunderdome.

And finally, we sent four reporters to Connecticut – Joey Bunch, Sadie Gurman, Kristen Painter and Kurtis Lee – to do whatever was needed five days after the story broke. We also sent two photographers – Mahala Gaylord and Aaron Ontiveroz – to shoot photos and videos and to assist in whatever other ways the editors there determined.

The memorial setup near the Sandy Hook firehouse, and the entrance road to Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The memorial setup near the Sandy Hook firehouse, and the entrance road to Sandy Hook Elementary School. (Tom Kelly IV)

News Channels Editor Troy Turner detailed the team effort from Thunderdome:

Nicole Hockley kneels next to her son Jake, 8, before he releases ballons  for Jake's brother Dylan Hockley, 6, near the end of a  memorial service Friday, December 21, 2012 at the Walnut Hill Community Church in  Bethel, Conn.  Photo by Peter Hvizdak / New Haven Register

Nicole Hockley kneels next to her son Jake, 8, before he releases ballons for Jake’s brother Dylan Hockley, 6, near the end of a memorial service Friday, December 21, 2012 at the Walnut Hill Community Church in Bethel, Conn. (Peter Hvizdak/ New Haven Register)

Thunderdome played a critical role throughout the coverage of the Newtown massacre for Digital First Media and its properties companywide, including filling an immediate leadership role and helping local editors to get established with continuing coverage.

It began that Friday morning as the story unfolded. Thunderdome was aware of the story from the beginning, making immediate calls to the editor in New Haven to help access the story as details emerged. Once it became evident that the story was growing in magnitude and into one of national interest, we quickly assembled our own team to dispatch to the scene. It included World channel editor Jason Fields, a former AP editor, and producer Aaron Edwards, a former reporter. Several others soon would follow, and the entire newsroom staff at Thunderdome within hours transitioned into a breaking-news team.

The first three days of the story, editor calls were organized and led by Thunderdome, which also organized and dispatched reporters gathered from contributing newsrooms throughout the DFM footprint in the region. Thunderdome also immediately reached out to the Denver Post for assistance and suggestions, as that newsroom won a Pulitzer for its coverage of Columbine and then faced the tragedy of the Aurora theater shooting. The Post also later responded and dispatched a reporter/photo team to help local editors in the coverage. Dozens of reporters and editors from other DFM sites responded to the call for help.

National coverage and distribution was led by Thunderdome throughout the early response, and Thunderdome also played a major role in editing all content during the first week of coverage.

Thunderdome’s video editor, Yvonne Leow, made an immediate impact by going to the satellite newsroom and establishing a photo/video desk for supervision of digital art. Mike Topel, Thunderdome’s Nation editor and also a former AP editor and DFM newsroom editor, was dispatched on the third day of coverage to anchor the satellite news desk and lead reporting on the victim profiles and the dozens of funerals. Both played critical leadership roles during the first week of coverage, on scene.

Another key leadership role Thunderdome provided was that of Mission Control on scene, with Chris March overseeing communication operations, technical assistance and distribution of content. Davis Shaver led Mission Control efforts back in New York during initial coverage.

Julie Westfall served in a key role as a rewrite editor and reporter on the national mainbar story sent out nationwide and worked with Karen Workman on digital offerings such as social media reports. The Thunderdome Data team became involved, working immediately on various research angles such as gun control issues and laws.

Others from Thunderdome involved in reporting, editing, producing and leading initial response to the story included Chris Hopkins, Adrienne LaFrance and Jacqueline Baylon as reporters and producers; Ryan Teague Beckwith and Gary Kicinski as editors working in Washington, D.C., and New York; and Troy Turner as news channels editor supervising Thunderdome’s efforts, including managing staff and resources, editing, and a visit to the satellite office to assess additional needs and to coordinate continuing coverage with local editors.

Others in Thunderdome provided support services from remote locations that included data, research, editing, moderating a live blog and assisting with Mission Control. They included Tom Meagher, Nelson Hsu, Vaughn Hagerty, Peggy Bustamante, Laura Cochran, Matt Grisafi, Kelly Metz, Jeremy Binckes, Bobby Bonnet, Mandy Jenkins, Andy Rhinehart, Angi Carter and Mark Lewis.

Thunderdome Editor Robyn Tomlin, Editor-in-Chief Jim Brady, and VP-print Frank Scandale provided supervision from upper management and ensured across-platform cooperation and the provision of necessary resources companywide for coverage and distribution of DFM’s overall efforts. Much of this came from the Thunderdome office in New York. Scandale also later visited on-site and led the planning and production of a special section that appeared in Sunday editions for regional DFM properties.

Here’s one of the videos produced by the DFM team while in Newtown.

McClure praised Scandale’s swift team-building in producing the special section:

Frank came in early Thursday with only the idea for the section and no staff. So he went around the New Haven newsroom establishing relationships with folks who had different pieces of knowledge about systems and files and such that it would take to create a 12-page section — but no full picture. Not surprisingly, these early morning folks were glad to participate in this story. So Frank created a coalition and the result will be a section that serves as an exclamation point for this project. It was a case study in teambuilding and empowerment.

Another excellent example of Newtown coverage came from the Salt Lake Tribune, where one child’s death was a local story. Editor Nancy Conway explains:

Salt Lake Tribune Emilie 1

Front page.

When The Tribune found itself with a slice of the Newtown tragedy, it responded with a tender and moving profile of the six-year-old victim and a haunting page design that showed print still has power. Reporter Dave Montero delicately established a relationship with the family of Emilie Parker, allowing him to paint a portrait that went beyond the usual. Editor Dave Noyce came up with the inspiration to end the story with a large block of white space to represent the life Emilie never got to live. The presentation was beautiful and truly touched the heart.

Online the story and photo gallery were widely viewed with 1.15 million page views. The package is still getting views and is particularly well liked and often shared on Facebook. It speaks to the power of good story telling for although it ends in a tragedy the story stands as a tribute to Emilie, and indeed, to all the victims of violence.

Salt Lake Tribune Emilie 2

Finally, we wanted to showcase the high-quality photojournalism that took place in Sandy Hook and the surrounding area as the community coped with ineffable tragedy. All photos in the following gallery were taken by DFM photojournalists.

Steve Buttry

By Steve Buttry

Steve Buttry is Digital Transformation Editor for Digital First Media. He oversees our efforts to transform newsroom operations and culture to more effectively pursue our digital goals. His duties include responsibility for social media and community engagement. He has visited most DFM newsrooms personally, leading workshops and coaching editors and other journalists in following the Digital First approach.

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