How the Orlando Sentinel, with a third of the staff it once had, covered the country's deadliest mass shooting
ORLANDO, Florida — The televisions attached to wide columns throughout the newsroom ran the press conference Sunday just after 10:20 a.m.
Roger Simmons, director of digital audience at the Orlando Sentinel, stood with colleagues in front of one of them. Lisa Cianci, local news editor, got up from her desk to watch. Christal Hayes, a breaking news reporter, watched a Periscope livestream from reporter David Harris at her desk.
Earlier that morning, law enforcement officials announced that 20 people were dead after a shooting at a popular gay nightclub. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer led the press conference, and he had a new number to report.
"Today we're dealing with something we never imagined and is unimaginable," he said, glancing at a piece of paper in one hand. "Since the last update, we have gotten better access to the building. We cleared the building. And it is with great sadness that I share we have not 20 but 50 casualties."
A gasp went through the newsroom.
"It's 50," Simmons said.
Casualties? someone asked. Does that include wounded?
No, he said, 50 dead.
Fifty, Cianci thought. Fifty. Fifty. Oh my God. It's 50.
Hayes stared at her computer in disbelief.
They were, for a moment, stunned.
Then, they got to work.
After 27 years at the Sentinel, Lisa Cianci's biggest fear — after layoffs and a fading newspaper industry — was covering major breaking news with a staff much smaller than it once was.
At its peak, the Orlando Sentinel had more than 350 journalists in the newsroom. On Sunday, as it ramped up to cover the nation's deadliest mass shooting, it had about 100. It's still the largest news organization in Orlando.
The Sentinel isn't new to big, breaking stories, either. Journalists here have covered shuttle explosions, hurricanes, the Casey Anthony trial, the death of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman.
But those stories were covered by a much bigger newsroom.
Sunday's news wasn't just a tragedy for the community but a test for the newsroom to see if it was possible to do good journalism without nearly as many good journalists.
'ANY INFO TO SHARE?'
Christal Hayes got off work around midnight on Sunday. She went home, put on her pajamas, got a piece of pizza, turned on Netflix and started watching "Grey's Anatomy."
She'd spent Friday night and Saturday covering the murder of singer Christina Grimmie. At 3 a.m., Hayes got a direct message on Twitter that brought her right back to work.
"My wife is in an apartment near the street from the Pulse Nightclub and reports shooting and police/emergency activity," a reader wrote her. "Any info to share?"
Hayes, who's new to the breaking news beat, looked into active calls from the police department but didn't see anything. She checked Twitter and saw unconfirmed rumors of a mass shooting with 20 injured.
She ran into her bedroom, woke up her boyfriend, got dressed and called her editor, Janet Reddick, who'd also just gotten off of work. Hayes got within a few blocks of Pulse Nightclub when she found streets closed off and guarded by armed deputies. None of them knew what was happening, either.
"They were all scared."
Hayes confirmed through police dispatch that there was a shooting. She didn't how how many or what had happened. She drove up a side road to call Reddick again. Hayes turned her car lights off, and quickly a few officers pulled up carrying assault rifles.
They asked to see her hands.
"I thought that was the scariest part," she said. "And then hearing everything that happened made it even scarier."
Hayes, the first on the scene for the Sentinel, looked for a media area and ended up reporting near Orlando Regional Medical Center, a nearby trauma hospital. She found people crying, ambulances pulling in and out.
She began piecing together what happened that morning.
Hayes worked with breaking news reporter Gal Tziperman Lotan, tweeting, livestreaming updates and calling in dispatches to the newsroom. She spoke with a young man who crawled through blood to get out of the night club and had helped two other people get out. Around 5 a.m., they heard a loud explosion, and the man jumped behind a car, sobbing. She tried to comfort him. She turned on Periscope for a moment to report what she heard and what she knew. She ended the livestream and headed for her car.
Inside, she called her boyfriend and cried. These were people her age. This was her town.
After a few moments, she headed back out again.
HUGE law enforcement presence at Pulse nightclub. Fire trucks and more than a dozen patrol vehicles pic.twitter.com/l8TTKE0adE
— Christal Hayes (@Journo_Christal) June 12, 2016
Roger Simmons and Cianci watched Sunday as journalists just showed up around town and in the newsroom.
Everyone wanted to help.
Cianci tried to send Hayes home to get some sleep, but "everyone wants to be here. Everyone wants to be involved."
On Sunday, the Orlando Sentinel published 30 videos and 40 stories about the shooting online, plus an eight page print section. They were ready, Managing Editor John Cutter said, because they'd prepared to use digital tools to follow the news: They knew the importance of homepage presence during breaking news, they knew how to use Scribble Live and Facebook Live and reporters knew to take their own photos and shoot their own videos.
While big stories such as hurricanes and trials tend to have a buildup period and are ongoing, they know that whatever the story, they're competing for their audience not just locally, but nationally.
"I think we’ve gotten very good at figuring out how to parse all the information you have into different things that make sense for readers," Cutter said.
They used those tools and skills on Sunday, including getting an interactive timeline up right away.
"Three years ago, we wouldn't have," Cutter said. "We didn’t have somebody here who could very quickly build an interactive."
Now, they do.
They've learned some lessons about other ways they'd like to be ready in the future, too. They're limited to a one-camera shot on Facebook Live, Cutter said, even though they have the equipment to offer b-roll and multi-camera shots. They don't have the software to make that equipment work.
"We could have updated live more," he said. "That’s the next level we need to get to."
They also waited too long to get in a helicopter and get visuals from the air, he said.
Still, they had stories up quickly, reporters at the hospital watching to see if bodies were being removed from the club, lookouts at the hotel where family members were told to go, people ready to interview and help translate in Spanish. They corralled the chaos with a daily budget on Google Docs and identified opportunities for stories that would have a big impact — including a press release that blood donations were needed.
"The main thing I think was everyone's willing to shift gears when we need them to shift gears," Cianci said.
HER FIFTH DAY
Sunday was Janet Brindle Reddick's fifth day back in the newsroom after five years working outside of daily newspapers.
She missed the buzz.
When Reddick, breaking news editor, got Hayes' call about the shooting, she went back to work until about 8 a.m. When she went to bed Sunday morning, 20 people were dead.
"I woke up five hours later, and it was 50 dead."
Then, she got a safety check-in alert from Facebook.
"I sort of realized, this is our Boston," Reddick said, referring to the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013. "This is our time to have to cover this for this city and put everything else aside."
She listened to President Obama's speech as she pulled into the Sentinel's parking lot that afternoon. She sat there, in her car, until the end. Then, she took another 30 seconds to collect herself and her thoughts.
The Sentinel is not the story here, Reddick said.
"This isn’t about us or how tired we are. It’s about what it’s done to the victims, and the impact it’s going to have on our city," she said. "This will forever be tied to Orlando and, unfortunately, those families will have to live with this forever."
The Los Angeles Times, the Sentinel's corporate cousin on the West Coast, shared the HTML code for the victim remembrance page it created after the San Bernardino shooting. The Baltimore Sun shared what it learned from starting a pop-up newsletter to cover the Freddie Gray story, and the Sentinel has started its own.
Tribune's Washington bureau sent along sources from the Justice Department.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel sent reporters to the shooter's hometown.
Many sister publications offered staff, which may be necessary as people here near burnout.
"That’s what I think is really good about our company," Simmons said, "and we stay focused on that. We’ll let the corporate folks figure out who owns us."
They'll keep reporting the news, he said.
"That’s what we’re here for."
Hayes went home, took a shower, slept for about an hour.
But she wanted to be working.
"I got some sleep, so I’m good," she said. "I think all of are us are like, we don’t want to go home knowing this is happening. We just want to help."
Editors keep telling them this isn't a sprint, it's a marathon. But Hayes didn't want to leave. She went to cover one of the vigils Sunday night. Here's some of what she wrote.
Many of those who attended, including Michael Erwin, 29, knew someone who was shot or died at Pulse.
Erwin worked at Universal Studios with 22-year-old Luis S. Vielma, who was killed.
"Coming together like this was good for our community. It doesn't matter if you're gay, straight, black, white. We are all victims of this," he said. "We are not going to break because of this. We are strong."
Attendees donned white ribbons as a sign of mourning and rainbow ribbons to show solidarity with the LGBT community. Many broke down in tears after lighting candles and hugged others for support.
A message on a table made out of paper and portions of candles read "Feel Ur Pulse."
— Christal Hayes (@Journo_Christal) June 12, 2016
Just before midnight, the first run of Monday's paper began. On the front page: an editorial that focused on solidarity in the community. As the presses spun and spat out the printed record of what happened Sunday in Orlando, Editor and Publisher Avido Khahaifa looked in from a window.
"You know what's sad?" he said to Simmons, "I can remember a time when this place would have been full of people."
A few editors took their copies of the paper back to the newsroom. But Khahaifa stayed, his arms stretched out, leaning against a wooden bar below the window as he watched the papers print.
He wanted to grab a final copy, he said, and see what they'd done.
Before Sunday, Cianci feared the newsroom's ability to cover major breaking news with a staff much smaller than it once was.
"Today just showed me that it doesn’t matter," Cianci said. "We can do it."
A newsroom is a newsroom is a newsroom, she said. When it was time, everyone jumped in to do what they needed to. Journalists went to the scene without being asked. Cianci even got an email from an editor who took the buyout in December to see if he could help out.
They covered one of the biggest breaking news stories to come to Orlando on a single day. And they kept it together.
"A week from now," she said, voice wavering, "I don’t know."
At midnight, many people still sat at their desks in the newsroom.