How the Virginia Tech Shooting Changed The Washington Post’s Reporting and Online Publishing

An interview by Matt Thompson, deputy editor of Startribune.com, with Meg Smith and Ju-Don Roberts of The Washington Post. (This interview was published in the 2008-2009 edition of Best Newspaper Writing.)

When the Virginia Tech story broke, reporters weren’t just posting frequent updates to the Web. They were also reporting through the Web, using sites such as Facebook and Craigslist to quickly locate students connected to the tragedy. Meg Smith, a researcher at the Post, describes how she and others culled contacts from the university’s online community as the story broke.

Meanwhile, the Post’s online editorial and design team faced the challenge of presenting a story that kept getting bigger. This meant making big alterations to the home page on the fly and creating multiple blogs to handle story developments and online reactions, all while the shape of the tragedy was still becoming clear. Ju-Don Roberts, managing editor of washingtonpost.com, discusses that balancing act.

MATT THOMPSON: Social networking Web sites are a relatively new arena for reporters. How much reporting, if any, had to be conducted through Facebook?

MEG SMITH: As a researcher, my role that day was to find contact information for anyone who might be able to shed light on what happened on campus. During the coverage of the shooting, I was sending phone numbers and names of parents and high school officials from alma maters as quickly as I could find them to over a dozen reporters and editors. We weren’t just looking for victims; we were mining the Tech student directory for anyone living in Ambler Johnston Hall [the location of the first shootings] and also chasing down leads that reporters were hearing on campus. At one point, I was looking at sublet ads on Craigslist to find cell phone numbers for anyone living just off-campus whom reporters could talk to during the campus lockdown.

How did you navigate the closed-community aspects of Facebook? For example, did you have to send friend requests to all of your sources, or join any of the groups you wrote about?

MEG SMITH: Julie Tate, one of the researchers at the Post, is a Virginia Tech alumna. Though she’d never used Facebook before, she created an account that day using her alumni email address and joined the Virginia Tech network. A student at Tech had created a new Facebook group called “I’m OK at VT” where students could post messages saying they were unharmed. But many of the messages posted in that group were for people who were missing after the shooting.

Many of the plaintive messages were quoted in the story that Jose [Antonio Vargas] wrote on April 18 ["A Chain of Grief with Links on Facebook"]. As soon as I saw them by logging onto Julie’s account, I began looking for contact information for the students and teacher who were named and the friends and classmates who had posted the messages.

It would be a day or more before police, the university or the hospitals would confirm the names of any of the victims. This put us in the unusual position of knowing their names too soon. Once I had found contact information for their families and high schools, as well as their campus information and Facebook pages, the editors assigned reporters to verify that they were victims and start working on profiles. Many of the victims listed on Facebook appeared on washingtonpost.com or in The Washington Post before the names were released by authorities.

What’s the policy at the Post for confirming the identity of someone found on Facebook?

MEG SMITH: The Post doesn’t have an explicit policy yet, though the company is in the middle of creating a policy on quoting from Web sites including Facebook and MySpace. The Post has mentioned comments on Facebook or MySpace hundreds of times, mostly in the context of quoting someone who is cooperating with a story, quoting pages that police say belong to criminal suspects, or talking about the sites in general. After the Delaware State University shooting that wounded two local students [also in 2007], we paraphrased expressions of concern we found on a victim’s MySpace page.

As one of the Post’s researchers, it’s always been my job to find contact information for sources even when we only have sketchy or incomplete information. So I can usually help track down a person in real life based on what we know from his Facebook profile. If it were important that a specific person made a comment, I could try to find him so reporters could call and confirm it.

There are already rules in place that predate social networking sites but still apply, like the Post’s standing policy to get a parent or guardian’s permission before quoting someone under 18. I think just about every journalistic standard we have can be applied to the Web with very little difficulty. I don’t make policy here, but my opinion is that folks who think the Internet is so different from other kinds of communication that it needs its own rules are wrong. It’s still people talking to and about other people, and people shouting from their soapboxes, just like it always has been.

I often verify details sources give to reporters, from finding out who owns a telephone number used to leave a tip, to checking public records to confirm ages, job titles and family relationships. In my work as a researcher, I’m often asking people on Facebook to help me or a reporter get in touch with principal sources, not really conducting interviews per se. So by the time I’ve found a principal source, the interview usually takes place over the phone or in person, and Facebook was just a way to make a first contact.

Are you still Facebook friends with any Facebook-originated sources?

MEG SMITH: I did not engage students directly by messaging or “friending” them on this story, though I’ve since used that in other stories.

But I always keep people on my friends list after a story runs. Not only is it good to keep channels open for follow-ups when trials begin and anniversaries come around, I also think it’s every bit as valid a connection as any other reason people “friend” each other on social networking sites. I don’t want people I talked to once to think I don’t want to hear from them in the future. Also, crime victims and their families here in the Washington, D.C., area are often located in the center of a bigger storm — they may end up being witnesses to future crimes, or just able to shed light on their neighborhood if something else happens there. I can’t think of a reason to “un-friend” anybody, though I can understand why a grieving friend or family member might “un-friend” me somewhere down the line.

Is your presence on Facebook more personal or professional? If both, how do you balance the two?

MEG SMITH: My presence on Facebook and MySpace were both meant to be solely professional — I use my full name on both and make my contact information and Washington Post affiliation clearly visible to all. Unfortunately, my friends all found me on there, so some of the comments are from people who know me personally. I’m glad they’re there, however, because I think if my pages looked too sterile, potential sources might shy away from me when I come calling. But I don’t take it to an extreme — I try to keep my pages friendly and colorful but not overly personal. After all, I’m friends with [Washington Post Company chairman] Don Graham!

Washingtonpost.com was itself host to a community of Web surfers reacting to the tragedy. What dimension does that community add to the coverage?

MEG SMITH: On local stories, it’s more like a telephone than a Web site — we really do read those comments at the bottom of stories, and we notice who’s linking to the stories on their blogs. One of the reasons I get involved in stories is to take the clues people leave about themselves online and try to find the real people behind those avatars, so reporters can interview them further if they have firsthand knowledge. Sadly, I have to do it the hard way and follow their online breadcrumbs; I can’t just call up the Web site and ask who owns an account or blog. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t do it even if I could — it isn’t very sporting.

While Smith and other Post journalists were working to advance the story, online editors were changing the Web site to accommodate developments. What special templates or new home page presentations did the story demand online?

JU-DON ROBERTS: Our page is usually configured [through the site's content management system] to have a lead story, presented with or without visual elements. With a story as multifaceted and as fast-moving as Virginia Tech, we had to use a special layout to accommodate all of the coverage we needed to present, as well as to convey the gravity of the situation. That layout was all in HTML code and had to be built while we were on deadline.

Within minutes of reports of a gunman on the Virginia Tech campus, the print and online staffs began pulling together our coverage plan. Within the first few hours, we not only had an article explaining the extent of the carnage on the campus, but also a locator map, video of the news conferences, audio from faculty and students, images from the scene, a live discussion with the editor of the student newspaper and reaction from [washingtonpost.com] readers.

Given that the story grew from what was thought at first to be a domestic shooting, at what stage did you decide it merited the special home page treatment?

JU-DON ROBERTS: If you remember the early stages of the coverage, there were a lot of mixed reports about whether a gunman was on the loose, whether anyone was injured or whether anyone was killed. Initially, we created a special “breaking news” section that carried the headline “Gunman Reported on Virginia Tech Campus.” Once we confirmed at least one person had been killed, we went to a headline and blurb treatment: headline, “Shooting Reported at Va. Tech”; blurb, “At least one person is dead and more are wounded in attack that leaves university on lockdown.”

By the time we had that confirmed, our home page editor was preparing to move the story to the lead of the site. Shortly after the headline and blurb went up, we moved to the banner headline treatment that read “Va. Tech: At Least 20 Killed in Campus Shootings.” We continued to build out that layout (same layout, but it got deeper as the content grew) as we added more elements, including the multimedia elements, to the package.

By the second day, we had full victim profiles with tributes from readers, a latest developments blog, a Web reaction blog, a then-exclusive video with a witness and other video, an interactive timeline, galleries, information on local vigils, and live discussions with officials, students and experts.

How did you decide blogs were the way to go for covering the latest developments and Web reaction?

JU-DON ROBERTS: When you have a story this big with a lot of uncertainty in the beginning, it cries out for a way to do quick updates that might not immediately impact the lead story. The blog was an obvious way to do that. Initially, we didn’t roll out the blog because the lead story was changing pretty quickly, but once you have a really solid story, the blog becomes a necessary appendage to allow for incremental updates. It wasn’t the first time we’ve used a blog/dispatches mode as a device to give quick updates. In fact, we’ve used the technique for years — even before blogging software was available to us.

What was involved in creating a special home page layout while the story was breaking?

JU-DON ROBERTS: Our home page is configured to allow for an “include” [a spot on the page where the contents of another file can be inserted] at the top of it. In that include, we can drop in HTML code, images, etc. We had our designer and developer work together to give us the code to change the look of the page while we focused on the developing story.

Did this prompt you to make any more preparations for future breaking news stories?

JU-DON ROBERTS: We’ve talked a lot about creating some templates for breaking news layouts, but our tool doesn’t allow us to just flip a switch and roll out a new layout. However, we do have in our toolkit some layouts that were built for projects, layouts that are very similar to the ones we would use for breaking news and that we can quickly dust off and use in breaking news situations.

When and how do you decide that a story rises to the level of requiring a new home page structure?

JU-DON ROBERTS: Deciding to move your home page to a new layout is a judgment call every time. If you would have asked me before Virginia Tech happened whether we would run a banner if 32 people were gunned down on a college campus, I would have said, “Absolutely.” It wouldn’t have mattered that the school is in our backyard — as Virginia Tech is — and draws many of its students from our region. But as I’ve outlined, we didn’t know what the real story was initially, so moving to a special layout is a process of decision-making based on the facts you have at your disposal. On the Web, those facts impact your decisions minute by minute, so your plans can change numerous times in a short amount of time. I would advise editors to trust their instincts. They should also consider their own investment of resources to cover the news event. If they are expending a lot of resources, then they should invest in creating a layout that presents the content well.

What else did you learn from this story that you might apply to future breaking news situations?

JU-DON ROBERTS: Virginia Tech came right on the heels of our newsrooms changing the way we deal with our 24-hour coverage. Prior to Virginia Tech, we had a centralized continuous news desk at the newspaper that worked closely with the Web site’s news desk to plan coverage and move copy. We had recently moved to a more decentralized approach — with each desk at the newspaper having its own continuous news desk editor focused on daily Web duties.

Virginia Tech was the first big news event after that change. We encountered some communication challenges in that so many people were involved in the coverage and it was difficult to harness all of those conversations. However, we quickly adapted, pulling together several check-in meetings with our senior team and sending one of our editors over to the paper to help coordinate from there. We sent the editor over several more times during the week and found it to be very helpful. We all agreed that the next time, it would be one of the first things we did.

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