Collegiate Times publishes special edition after Virginia Tech campus shooting

When Collegiate Times editor-in-chief Zach Crizer first heard about Thursday’s Virginia Tech shooting via a university alert, he ran to the scene with news editor Michelle Sutherland.

She talked with police while Crizer interviewed students and tweeted that the police officer who was shot had died. Photo Editor Daniel Lin, meanwhile, went to the parking lot where the second shooting had occurred.

In this photo taken by Paul Kurlak, police hold up a white sheet near the crime scene where an officer and second person were shot with the same gun.

“We had various people who we thought may have been eyewitnesses and we tried calling them,” Crizer said in a phone interview. “Eventually, cell phone service was so bad that it stopped and we couldn’t get through.”

Using social media to share updates, find sources

Crizer and Sutherland, who didn’t end up finding any eyewitnesses, posted frequent news updates from the Collegiate Times’ Twitter account. Staffers also tweeted from their personal accounts, and used Twitter to contact sources. By the end of the day, the paper had gained about 18,000 Twitter followers and 800 Facebook likes.

“We were constantly looking at people who read the Collegiate Times’ tweets,” Crizer said. “For the most part, unless it was something completely unfounded or crazy, we’d try to react and investigate the tweets being sent to us. We wanted to confirm or deny information, and attempt to answer questions if we could.”

Along with tweeting breaking news, Crizer said, staffers occasionally tweeted bits of context for readers who may not have been following the story closely.

Staffers covering the 2007 shooting couldn’t use Twitter the same way because it wasn’t as widespread. “Email and cell phone service were both down, so we relied on Facebook and AIM to communicate,” Amie Steele, former Collegiate Times editor-in-chief told my colleague Julie Moos. “Facebook was crucial in our reporting because we would see posts like ‘RIP John’ and would have a lead on a victim’s identity. On AIM, people were chatting about shooter ‘sightings’ and hearing gunshots.”

Dealing with unreliable information, photos

The paper made it a priority Thursday to verify information and correct the errors it made, Crizer said. Shortly after the shooting, a Twitter user told the paper that Radford University was on lockdown. But the university later released a statement saying it wasn’t on lockdown, at which point the Collegiate Times corrected the information on Twitter.

It can be tough to verify the information you get on social networks, especially during breaking news situations. Police and authorities weren’t available for interviews on Thursday, so Collegiate Times staffers listened to red flags from their Twitter followers.

At one point, the paper retweeted a photo of police running down a staircase in one of the campus buildings. “Someone tweeted it as if it were today, and then someone else tweeted that it wasn’t today,” said Crizer, who’s a senior. “Seeing as we hadn’t heard a police scanner report about police rushing out of that building, we decided to correct it.”

Finding backup plans for the website

As Crizer and Sutherland tweeted updates, Collegiate Times Online Director Jamie Chung ran the website from his dorm room. Chung’s room became a mini satellite office, where student photographers in the area uploaded their photos to his computer.

The site, which typically averages 38,000 visits per week, got about 52,000 visits on Thursday and 143,000 total views. It crashed several times, causing Chung to create backup plans. When the site first crashed, he redirected the entire site to a “breaking news” section. It crashed again, so he created a WordPress site, which featured photos and the paper’s tweets. The third time it crashed, he redirected the site to the paper’s Twitter handle.

“It was very important to us to make sure we could still reach our audience,” Chung said by phone, noting that the site’s server was eventually upgraded. “The biggest challenge was knowing there was a problem that you know needs to be fixed but feeling like it’s completely out of your control. We said, ‘We might be down, but we still need some credible channel for our audience to access the news.’ ”

The Collegiate Times had to take a similar publishing approach during the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007.

‘Flooded with calls’ from news organizations

News organizations were especially interested in getting news and updates from the Collegiate Times.

“We were getting flooded with calls,” said Crizer, who covered the aftermath of the 2007 shooting. “We told them our policy is to not give interviews to other media outlets during breaking news because we want all of our people to write for us. The New York Times offered the opportunity to contribute to a story (instead of interviewing us), so we got quotes for them and did some reporting.” Staffers ended up talking with a couple of other news organizations as well.

It’s not unusual for news outlets to turn to student newspapers when big university news breaks. It makes sense, given that students sometimes have greater access to sources and tips.

“We were the closest ones to the incident and were trying to make sure we gave all students what they needed to know to stay safe and to be aware and of what was happening on campus,” Crizer said. “We could give eyewitness accounts and offer that perspective of being on campus in lockdown mode, and then relay that to people.”

Publishing a special print edition

The paper’s last scheduled publication of the semester came out Wednesday. Thursday night, though, staffers were busy putting together a four-page Friday issue about the shootings.

Friday’s issue features a time line of events and a map showing where the shootings occurred. It also features a straightforward news story; a piece about the college community gathering together at a vigil; and a story about how students communicated with friends and family after the shooting. “We knew that in 2007 that was a major ordeal,” Crizer said. “People didn’t get to talk to anyone to let them know they were OK. We found that the proliferation of parents on Facebook made that situation a lot easier.”

Friday’s special edition of the Collegiate Times included a front page photo and profile of the police officer who died, as well as a full back page of photos.

Depending on how news develops, Crizer said, staffers may also put together a special weekend issue.

Covering Thursday’s tragic event showed Crizer how journalists and the public can work together to share information and tell a story.

“You always think that if you’re in a breaking news situation, the most important thing going forward is to answer all the questions that readers might come up with,” Crizer said. “I think in this instance, we really saw that we can directly respond to their questions in a timely fashion, and we can ask them questions. When we do that, we’re better because of it, and so is the community.”

Correction: Paul Kurlak’s name in the caption of this photo was originally spelled incorrectly.

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