The new edition of The Daily Tar Heel was supposed to be about the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s upcoming football season. Then an armed person was reported to be on campus Monday afternoon. The university went into an hourslong lockdown. The suspect was later arrested in the fatal shooting of a faculty member.
Members of the independent student newspaper staff regrouped Monday evening. They scrapped their original idea for the front page.
“We said, ‘Well, we can’t do that. We need something impactful,’” said Caitlyn Yaede, the Tar Heel’s print managing editor. “We need something that’s going to really communicate the gravity of the situation.”
Then the idea came — very late Monday night. Emmy Martin, the 2023-24 editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel, was in bed and looking through all the text messages she’d received during the lockdown. She hadn’t had a chance to respond to them. She also saw social media posts from some of her UNC peers who posted the text messages they’d received.
“And that’s kind of when it hit me. Everyone was getting these texts, and we were all kind of not having the same experience, but having an experience we all shared together,” said Martin, a junior double majoring in journalism and information science. “That’s when I kind of knew that that is our front page.”
She texted Yaede. What if they strung together text messages by UNC students who were locked down?
“I said, ‘Genius. Perfect,’” said Yaede, who went to UNC for undergrad and is now pursuing a master’s degree in public policy.
Yaede said the front page design became a team effort between herself, Martin, and Tar Heel multimedia managing editor Carson Elm-Picard. They asked their newsroom leadership staff of about 36 editors to reach out to peers to see if they would share the text messages they’d sent to their family and friends during the lockdown.
“It was just so harrowing to see people’s parents send things to them that I know my mom would send to me,” Yaede said. “I think there was one that was along the lines of, ‘I wish I could just come get you right now.’ And my mom says that to me when I’m sick in my dorm room, let alone when there’s someone armed on our campus. The reaction was so universal. Everyone’s parents felt helpless. All the students felt scared. And no matter how they communicated that — whether it was with expletives or these really heart-wrenching messages to their loved ones — everyone communicated these same emotions of just frustration and fear. It just made me sad.”
The result was an impactful front page that has drawn nationwide attention.
Wednesday’s edition of The Daily Tar Heel features some of those text messages sent and received by UNC students. It’s in all caps, the font Myriad Pro Semibold Condensed, and mostly black bold type — with some red.
And it begins with questions.
ARE YOU SAFE? WHERE ARE YOU? ARE YOU ALONE?
Down the page, the font size grows smaller. The decision to render a few of the messages in red was a decision Yaede and Martin made on the fly, Yaede explained. She said they were talking about which messages to make the biggest.
“How do we tell a story in the order in which we portray the messages? And in doing so, I was making visual notes by just highlighting like, ‘OK, this one is really impactful. This one’s really impactful,’” she said.
Yaede said that, by the time they were done, there were highlighted quotes all over the page.
“We sat back and were like, ‘Wait a minute, that’s the way to tell the story.’ It’s not about highlighting one specific thing,” she said. “It’s about having the stream of consciousness of text, and picking out the most salient parts.”
Courtney Mitchell, general manager and news adviser of The Daily Tar Heel, said the staff told her on Tuesday morning about the idea to feature their peers’ text messages on the front page, but she didn’t see it until it was uploaded to the printer.
“This was 100% all them,” Mitchell said.
The Daily Tar Heel is an independent nonprofit newspaper and, though it is an official student organization at UNC, it does not receive university support. Mitchell said part of her role as general manager is to help train and guide the student journalists. But they make their own decisions.
“I don’t think anyone else except this generation could give voice and legs to this feeling of what it’s like to be on lockdown, while you know that there have been shots fired, or that’s what you’ve been told and that’s what you’re imagining,” Mitchell said. “And you don’t actually know how bad it is.”
Late Tuesday night, Yaede shared the image of the front page on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“I shed many tears while typing up these heart-wrenching text messages sent and received by UNC students yesterday,” she tweeted. “Our campus was on lockdown for more than three hours. Beyond proud of this cover and the team behind it.”
The front page of tomorrow’s @dailytarheel –
I shed many tears while typing up these heart-wrenching text messages sent and received by UNC students yesterday. Our campus was on lockdown for more than three hours.
Beyond proud of this cover and the team behind it. pic.twitter.com/2gE51TrHZ8
— Caitlyn (she/her) (@caitlyn_yaede) August 30, 2023
Mitchell said she doesn’t think a photograph would have been as compelling.
“I definitely think this is the most powerful news interpretation of this event that I could imagine,” she said. “I don’t think I felt their fear until I saw the paper. I think that was the first time I let down my guard enough to be like, ‘Wow, we all just went through this, didn’t we?’ And what I think is happening across the country is people are resonating with that. These text messages have actually anthropomorphized fear, and now it’s walking around us. And we can’t ignore it.”
Martin said it was heartbreaking to see the final version. “You can feel the fear in that front page, and in those texts,” she said. “Honestly I can’t even look at the paper now and read through it all without tearing up, even still.”
By Wednesday, Yaede’s tweet had been reposted more than 17,000 times. This is her second week on the job as The Daily Tar Heel’s print managing editor. Yaede previously served as opinion editor and summer editor.
Yaede asked those who liked their front page to keep reading.
“I’m incredibly proud of the work that we as student journalists have been able to pull off in the last two days. I think we don’t really give ourselves time to process what happened, as much as we want to hop in and start working on it,” she said. “We are close to the issue. We are students. We are impacted by it. And I think our coverage of it is something to look out for. … We have more to offer. We have more to say. We have more to share.”
This article was updated after publication to include additional context from Emmy Martin.