Stopping the Presses and Getting it Right
As Susan Smith went to bed last night, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was whizzing off the presses. "Miracle at Sago: 12 Miners Alive" blared across the top of Page One.
A photograph of women embracing stretched across six columns. A report
of the city's mayoral inauguration that day peeked out below the fold.
Two-thirds of the front page appeared to exhale along with a region
that had held its breath for two days, awaiting news of a dozen miners
trapped below the earth near Buckhannon, W. Va.
Nearly six hours and 142,000 papers later, the Post-Gazette that Smith, the paper's managing editor, found on her driveway this morning told a different story.
"Joy to Horror: 12 Dead at Mine." The story now covered
three-quarters of the front page. Three Page-one stories. A refer to
the paper's Web site and three more A-section stories. Joy to horror.
That wasn't the paper Smith had helped put to bed the night before. In an early-morning news conference, mine officials announced that earlier reports that the 12 had been found alive were false. The newspaper's Web staff had been posting continual write-throughs and updates throughout the night from the five reporters and two photographers the Post-Gazette had dispatched to Upshur County, W. Va.
The "12 Found Alive in Sago Mine" that had led the Web site's top
story just after midnight had become "Only One Miner Survives" by the
time Smith woke up to check the site's updates at 3 a.m.
“We had run about close to half of our run, but we got the second half and we got it right.” -- Post-Gazette executive editor David ShribmanThat's just about the time the
paper's executive editor, David Shribman, made the call to stop the
"We had run about close to half of our run, but we got the second
half and we got it right," Shribman said in a brief telephone
interview Wednesday. "We finished printing papers at 5:30, an hour
later than usual."
About 114,000 copies of the Post-Gazette's 256,000-paper
press run were delivered to homes, businesses and boxes throughout the
city with the news that only one miner had survived.
Smith, who had been directing coverage of the story along with Tom
Birdsong and Lillian Thomas in the paper's Pittsburgh newsroom, had
left the newsroom around 8 p.m. with a tentative plan in place: cover
the story on the Web as it broke, and push the print version along as
much as possible.
"We closed with what we had thought was going to be the final time
with the news that the 12 miners were alive," Smith said by telephone
Wednesday. "Before we left last night, we sort of had a plan because
this was still developing and we weren't sure how it was going to work."
By 2:30 a.m., the story had taken a 180-degree
turn that would leave more than half of the paper's circulation
with an inaccurate front page and an incomplete story.
"I've been surprised that we haven't had calls," Smith said. "I
thought that we might, at least from people who got the early edition."
But she said that, as far as she knew, nobody had called the newsroom
to complain about what had become an outdated -- and incorrect -- story.
"My sense is that readers understand that a newspaper has a specific
deadline, at which point you have to start printing it, so they may
understand that the news didn't make the first run," she said.
But the story of how a newspaper copes with such an unusual turn of
events will be told in tomorrow's paper, Smith said. A writer in the Post-Gazette's features department has already begun work on it.
"We are going to explain what a quandary this presented for the
media and how different media fared in terms of getting the news out,"
she said. "That's sort of a sidenote to the tragedy that's going on
down there. Right now, we're just trying to get to the families and to
tell their stories... But the media part of this was something that we
should explain to people."
In the meantime, the paper's Web staff has continued to post updates, with photos and reports from Post-Gazette staff members and the Associated Press.
It's a minute-by-minute approach that is unusual for the site.
Mary Leonard, the paper's deputy managing editor, oversees
Post-Gazette.com. The site's approach to covering the story of the Sago
Mine tragedy was relatively unusual, she said, operating under the
expectation that continual updates would see the story through to its
"It was a dramatic story, and we felt that we could be first and best.” -- Post-Gazette deputy managing editor Mary Leonard"We normally don't do updating [of published stories] on our
Web site after 6 in the evening and into the night," she said. But the
circumstances of this particular story and its proximity to Pittsburgh
–- roughly 98 miles -– merited vigilance, she said. [Read more about the Post-Gazette's online coverage of the Sago Mine story here.]
"As far as I know, we're the largest paper closest to the events
happening down in West Virginia," Leonard said. "I think there was also
a little bit of a history here. It was just in 2002 that there was mine
flooding in Quecreek
[a mine outside nearby Somerset, Pa.]. Pennsylvania's a mining state.
This is a story that this paper has historically covered. We consider
parts of West Virginia in our circulation area. It was a dramatic
story, and we felt that we could be first and best."
Stopping the Presses and Getting it Right
CORRECTION: The original illustration accompanying this article included an earlier edition of the front page of the Rocky Mountain News. In fact, as editor John Temple explained on his blog, the paper updated its front page with accurate information about the trapped miners. (January 4, 2006)