On April 20, 1999, Rebecca Risch started her second week as a producer at The Denver Post. Her office sat two floors above the newsroom. She and her boss worked to get content for the paper’s news site, but print mattered most, so they didn’t get much. Around lunchtime that day, Risch sat alone in the office. Then, her boss called.
There was a shooting at Columbine High School.
He was on his way back.
Fourteen years later, on Friday, Dec. 13, Risch sat at her desk, surrounded by city editors from the Post.
Around 12:30 p.m., Larry Ryckman, assistant city editor, stood up.
“There’s been a school shooting,” he said.
The newsroom soon learned that 18-year-old Karl Pierson had shot Claire Davis, 17, at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colo., and then had killed himself. Davis remained in critical condition Sunday night.
There are similarities between the two days separated by 14 years. For both, there was a school shooting. For both, the newsroom mobilized. But there are differences, too. The newsroom at The Denver Post changed during the past 14 years. Some of it’s been forced, some learned, some chosen. And now, covering tragedy is a pretty familiar process, said Risch, digital director for the Post, in a phone interview with Poynter.
“I think we’ve learned, sadly, just how to break this kind of news.”
Breaking, then and now
April 20, 1999 was Larry Ryckman’s birthday. He took the day off. When he learned of the Columbine shooting, he rushed in to his Denver office. Ryckman was, at that time, an assistant managing editor at The Associated Press. He directed the AP’s coverage of Columbine.
On Friday, Ryckman, now at The Denver Post, learned of the school shooting at Arapahoe High through Pagenet, which e-mails updates from the police scanner. A lot has changed since he covered Columbine. In those days, he remembers a boss who said the AP needed to think more like newspapers. Turns out newspapers needed to think more like the AP, said Ryckman by phone.
“You file quickly,” he said. “You tell readers what you know when you know it.
Now it’s much easier to keep in touch with reporters and for them to get critical information back to the newsroom, Ryckman said. Everyone has cell phones. All those phones can shoot photos and videos. And because of that, editors such as Ryckman can see exactly what his reporters are seeing as they’re seeing it.
“There was just no delay,” he said.
There’s also much more access to sources, such as law enforcement, who are tweeting information as they get it.
“In some ways, it makes our jobs a bit easier,” Ryckman said. “But then in others, it makes it a lot more difficult because we have so much stuff we have to wade through.”
Back in 1999, there was a photo department and an editorial department and they both kind of did their own things. Today, he says, the lines are much more blurred. And digital people aren’t two floors away.
“We all sit together,” Ryckman said.
Since Columbine, The Denver Post has reported on the Aurora movie theater shootings, and numerous natural disasters. People know their roles, Ryckman said, and when something major happens, the paper puts everything they have toward covering it and getting it right.
“Some of this, sadly, is muscle memory for all of us.”
Working, then and now
April 20, 1999, Risch and her boss worked to put coverage of what happened at Columbine on the paper’s website. She doesn’t think they got any copy from the newsroom. There was no content management system. All HTML was typed manually.
Risch looked for photos and added what she could find to help cover the tragedy.
“Sadly, that was the first time among many.”
On Friday, when she heard of the Arapahoe High shooting, Risch’s heart sank. But then experience kicked in. The Post’s social media editor followed what was happening on Twitter. Reporters got on the phone and waited for confirmation while others headed to Arapahoe High School. And everyone at the Post waited.
“We’re not going to tweet it out until we know,” she said. “We’re only going to deal with facts. We just want to be really sure. Something like this especially, you just don’t want to mess it up.”
Their tweet announcing the shooting was ready, Risch said, but the Post waited about five minutes until the sheriff’s office confirmed it. When that confirmation came, they tweeted, sending out a breaking news alert and reporting the details as they became available.
The Post started a live blog using ScribbleLive, and focused its efforts there on gathering all the coverage that was coming in on the shooting.
Risch now has a team of 13 people devoted to keeping the website fresh. They sit, and work, among the editors. “Everyone’s on board,” she said.
What matters, Risch said, is using the tools available to give readers the stories they need, and working to tell those stories better.
It’s hard, she said, but covering news like what happened Friday is, by now, a process. “And the whole newsroom gets it.”
Watching, then and now
April 20, 1999, Ryan Parker gathered around a television with classmates at Englewood High School, half an hour from Columbine. Silently, they watched the news. Parker was a high school sophomore, trying to understand how two kids his own age could do this.
On Friday, Dec. 13, Parker, now a breaking news reporter for the Post, was at lunch with a friend. His shift didn’t start for a few hours, but Parker checked his Twitter feed on his phone out of habit. He learned of the shooting. And he was just five miles from Arapahoe High. Sorry, he told his friend, and left.
“I was so close,” he said in a phone interview. “And I just figured, if this is really happening and I’m this close, there’s no way anyone from the Post is going to beat me there.”
Like with his coverage of the Aurora shootings, Parker wanted to get as close as possible and share what he was seeing and hearing. He wanted people to know what was happening at that moment, and he did so through Twitter.
Students tell me 2 students were shot about 30 minutes ago. Shooter also shot, they say pic.twitter.com/NrK0nZzBzH
— Ryan Parker (@ryanparkerdp) December 13, 2013
At the school, lines of people were pushed back further and further. Parker pressed ahead with parents into the waves of students coming out of the high school. He wanted to know, what happened? What did you see? What did you hear? He wasn’t interested in what students had heard from others, but their first-hand accounts.
At the Post, Parker said, staff is trained to be digital media first, and social media is a tremendous tool to use when telling a story.
“It’s in and of itself a way to tell the initial story,” he said.
So he tweeted what he heard from crying, inconsolable students. There’d been a shooting, two were injured, it happened in the library. But he held one detail back. One student told him the shooter set fire to the library. Parker waited. What if it was wrong? What if it was misleading? Without official confirmation, would it add unnecessary angst for people following along?
“I just want to report the news,” Parker said. “I don’t want to make it entertaining or sexy. I just want to tell readers what the news is.”
And, in one tweet, he showed what it’s like to cover that news.
I have to hug every student I interview, I can't help it. #arapahoehigh
— Ryan Parker (@ryanparkerdp) December 13, 2013
“I know that I exposed a little bit of my humanity,” Parker said. “I felt a little silly after. I didn’t know if it would be misinterpreted.”
Kids were crying, hunched down, leaning over, and many Parker spoke with were physically close to the shooting. He couldn’t just make them relive the horror and then walk away and ask another kid to do the same. So he hugged them. And he said, “It’s going to be OK.”
He’d been there himself, in a way, as a student watching Columbine unfold, then later as a reporter in Aurora. “This, like every shooting that I’ve covered, is horrific,” Parker said. “Your heart does break.”
Ryckman agreed. “For me, as a parent, it’s tough,” he said. “I’ve covered all kinds of tragedies, but school shootings are particularly difficult to handle.”
Like police officers or firefighters, though, Ryckman said, “you just focus on what you can do.”
Since Friday, The Denver Post has kept with the story, telling readers about the young woman who was shot, about the young man who did the shooting, and offering a history of school shootings since Columbine.
“It’s difficult, in a situation like this, to feel good about coverage,” Ryckman said, especially when the story’s about kids. “And yet, at this point, I can look back at Friday, I can’t think of anything at the moment that I would have done differently.”