September 4, 2013

Earlier this summer, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published “How the Aurora shooter got his ammo” — an investigation into how James Holmes managed to purchase some 6,000 rounds of ammunition before he killed 12 people and wounded 58 in a theater in Aurora, Colorado last year. The answer? He bought the ammo online, from a company determined to elude anyone trying to find it.

Todd Frankel’s story brims with surprising facts, and he writes with an understated authority. The reporting is smart, thorough and creative. As he notes below, he even managed to use dead ends productively.

In the end, an important piece that could have crippled readers with boredom reads like a mystery, as Frankel takes us on a journey to find out exactly where the ammo that fueled Holmes’ killing spree really came from.

In an email interview for the Poynter Excellence Project, Frankel, an award-winning enterprise reporter who has been at the Post-Dispatch for 10 years, answered questions about the choices he made as he reported and wrote the story. An edited version of that interview appears below.

What do you usually cover?

I’m an enterprise reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, so I don’t have a traditional beat. I look for stories that strike my curiosity and for different angles on stories in the news.

How did you get on to this story?

By accident. In April, a judge in Colorado unsealed some records with various new details about the Aurora shooting. I happened to read a brief wire story about the records and one detail caught my eye: Holmes bought ammo from a St. Louis-based online ammo dealer. That was the first I’d heard about it. So I started poking around, really just curious to see who this dealer was. I didn’t imagine it would lead anywhere all that interesting.

 Why ammo (instead of the weapons themselves, or some other aspect of the story)?

Todd Frankel

That was my opening. That was the local connection. I’d done some stories earlier in the year about the national debate over gun violence, so I was interested in the topic. The source of the guns in the Aurora shooting was quickly traced back to legal purchases at sporting goods stores. But there was less scrutiny of the ammo — not only in Aurora, but in other mass shootings. So it felt like the topic needed exploring.

How long did it take you to do the piece (from the start of your reporting to the day you and your editor sent it to the copy desk)?

The story was a little unusual in that I wasn’t working on it consistently. I’d gather some string, hit a wall, do something else, come back. I started in April. I produced an early draft in May, talked it over with editors Jean Buchanan and Adam Goodman, and we agreed I should develop it further, travel to Knoxville and Atlanta and wherever else was necessary. Then I had to set up the trip and go.

All that reporting changed the story. I probably finished writing at the end of June. Then we had to find room for the story (it’s kinda long) in the newspaper, and online graphics guru Christopher Spurlock needed time to do something different with the online presentation. The story ran July 13, the Sunday before the one-year anniversary of the Aurora shooting.

What major challenges did you face reporting and writing the piece, and how did you deal with them?

The biggest challenge was the subject of the story didn’t want to talk. Confirming even the most basic details was a slog. The regulations that apply to gun dealers — which provide at least a little information — do not apply to ammo dealers. State laws on businesses are pretty loose too.

The story notes that “it can feel like chasing a ghost,” and it really did. It was frustrating, but also revealing — because it didn’t seem like this really should be so hard. That informed how I approached the story and structured it.

Public records seemed to play a pretty prominent role in your reporting of the story. Is that correct? And how difficult were they to access?

Public records were crucial. Not only the records I could find, but the lack of public records. (I needed to be certain that certain records really did not exist — in these cases, the negative was actually harder to confirm than the positive.) I think reporters (including me) sometimes fall into the trap of believing that if Google doesn’t turn it up, it doesn’t exist. But lots of records are not online or exist in unsearchable formats.

You have to call and ask for these records or go to some far-flung courthouse and talk to the clerks and make sure not only that they have the records, but that you’re asking the right questions, that you’re not missing records you didn’t even know existed. For example, I used U.S. Department of Labor records that showed a company entwined with the ammo dealer had applied for a H1B visa. Finding that was important. But I didn’t know that data even existed when I started. I had a hint the information was out there, but had no idea how to find it.

So I called immigration attorneys and government officials. And finally one mentioned that there might be a record trail I could use. Eventually, I found the data, which led to an address — an essential link.

You frame the piece as a mystery/quest, and that works really well. Talk about how you made that decision. What were you hoping to accomplish?

I wanted people to actually read the story. I didn’t want it to be boring. The story relied on lots of public records and research. That can be tedious reading. The story needed action. It needed movement. And so a natural solution was to bring the reader along on the reporting journey, let them follow the hunt. This also allowed me to employ moments that were essentially reporting miscues — like getting doors slammed in my face.

You write in the second person throughout the piece. What made you decide to do that, and what impact do you think that has on the reader? (At one point, referring to a blog post written by a character in the story, you say, “Go online and find it.” At another spot, you say, “Type ‘bulk ammo’ into Google.”)

I didn’t have a character to build the story around. No one else was chasing this angle. The reporter was the driver. And the second person allowed the reader to enter into the story. It made them active participants and showed I was being transparent — telling the reader, “Really, go ahead and type these terms into Google and you can see it for yourself. I’m not making this up.”

How did you figure out that the various websites all belonged to the same company?

First, the domain names were all registered in Tennessee to the same corporate owner. That almost would be enough. But the sites also shared certain design and coding traits, almost like fingerprints. They had common wording, especially in the boilerplate pages. There were other things that pointed to their shared heritage, too. Taking all that together, we made the connection.

Do you know much about guns and ammo? How did you manage to get the details right (when reporters often get them wrong)?

I know enough to write .22-caliber and not 22-caliber. But a colleague who knows guns proofread the story for that reason. He was a great help. And the editors and copy desk were alert to making sure we got it right. For example, the headline couldn’t be “Where the Aurora Shooter Got His Bullets” because he also bought shotgun shells, which are not technically bullets.

Your tone is pretty understated throughout the story, although your point-of-view is clear. Again, it works really well. Did you choose that tone deliberately? Why?

I didn’t want the story to sound like a polemic — and I didn’t want readers to think I was steering them. So I worked hard to that end. Stories tend to more effective when readers reach their own conclusions — especially on a topic as sensitive as guns and ammo.

It’s a story about ammo, but it’s a very human story, too. Were you conscious of the need to make the story human (by interviewing the pastor at the church in Knoxville, for example)?

Yes, stories are best when they’re about people. So I looked for opportunities. I was lucky to find the pastor. And I decided to put a bit more focus on the shooting’s youngest victim, 6-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan, to illustrate that this was not an academic exercise, but one with real consequences.

How did readers react to the story?

Overwhelmingly positive. The kind of stuff that makes you blush. I was surprised. I expected more blowback, especially on a piece about guns and ammo. But readers really liked the story. Even readers who said they strongly supported gun rights, they said they understood why this story needed to be written. That meant a lot.

What other lessons did you learn?

Follow the story. I didn’t know where this would lead. It could’ve been a short article in the back of the business section. It could’ve never run. But you’ve got to try and see where it goes.

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