Nick Roll was working on homework over a small coffee and a blueberry doughnut at Dunkin Donuts across the street from Ohio State University Monday morning when the message hit his phone.
“Buckeye Alert,” it read. “Active Shooter on campus. Run Hide Fight. Watts Hall. 19th and College.”
Roll, a senior and campus editor of OSU’s The Lantern, packed up his laptop and charger and headed out. He wanted to get as close to the news as he could.
His editor, Sallee Ann Ruibal, wasn’t yet back on campus after Thanksgiving break when OSU started making national news. She was still at her mom’s in Cincinnati, getting ready to pick up her two corgis from a pet resort where they’d been for a few days.
She got the Buckeye Alert, too.
“I was like, ‘oh, shit,'” Ruibal said. “This is everything we had feared, but we knew that we would have to step up as a staff and a newspaper.”
College journalists don’t often have to cover breaking news that’s being followed nationally. But staffers at The Lantern were ready for a few reasons: They’ve had practice, they had a plan and they know their campus.
Run hide fight
Ruibal made a quick decision Monday morning: She would work from her mom’s house, camped out on the couch with laptop and phone, instead of spending those important first hours in the car. The campus was shut down and all highway exits were closed off. So she worked from two hours away to orchestrate coverage and help find sources.
In Columbus, Roll got within about a block of the scene. He met up with three other Lantern reporters. He filed updates from the sidewalk off the Wi-Fi of a nearby building, working from a shared Google Doc.
He didn’t think he’d be covering a story that would turn into national news. He just knew something was happening and he had to get there, fast. The reporters he met there had the same instinct. None of them coordinated.
“I know that’s not my mom’s first instinct,” Roll said. “My mom probably wasn’t super happy.”
The Lantern, which is part of the university, was founded in 1881. Faculty advisor Spencer Hunt’s office is filled with pictures of early groups of student journalists.
“The Lantern is almost like an institution,” he said.
Journalism students write for the publication as part of a class. Editors are paid a monthly stipend, and The Lantern is self-supported through advertising. They’re now dealing with the same revenue realities as other newspapers, Hunt said.
It’s also a lab where young journalists can get experience. This semester, the focus has been on handling breaking news.
“What we teach is that when something happens, that’s the moment when our audience is going to be the most engaged,” Hunt said.
Previous big news events at the school taught the staff that they needed to put a plan in place. They’d have to be active on social media right away, supplying accurate information as fast as they could. Within a few hours, they’d need that news on site and ready to be updated, Hunt said.
“And they followed that plan just perfectly.”
When the shelter in place rule lifted, Ruibal left her mom, a former Cincinnati Enquirer reporter, and headed for Columbus. By 3 p.m., she was on a deserted campus, walking toward the newsroom. Someone had to come down and let her inside.
Outside, it was overcast, eerie, with the heaviness of what took place that morning.
Inside? “I have never seen my newsroom so popular,” Ruibal said.
People shouted to each other across the newsroom. By the time the name of the attacker was confirmed, The Lantern was ready with work from their archives. They’d reported on both the attacker and the officer who shot and killed him. They also followed up with a look at how they got that first story.
And they sifted through rumor after rumor after rumor. It wasn’t an active shooter, the audible gunshots came from the officer who killed the attacker. There wasn’t a second attacker. The bomb squad did show up, but there was no bomb. There was no sniper. The attacker did hit a group of students with his car, then attacked them with a knife. Eleven people were injured. He was shot and killed. Those students were outside because of a fire drill. For awhile, people suspected someone inside the building pulled that alarm on purpose.
“It was this horrible coincidence,” Roll said.
The Lantern has had its share of big campus news to cover in the last few years. A football player went missing and was found dead. A campus tradition turned fatal. A student fell from a sorority house window and, most recently, an anti-Trump rally took place on campus.
In class, there’s a big emphasis on social media and how to use it responsibly, sharing information that isn’t plagued by rumors, Ruibal said.
“The minute we become another chattering person out there, we lose our credibility,” she said.
Breaking news isn’t really all that hard, Roll said. You write what you know. And usually, you don’t know much. So you don’t write much. The tough part is sifting through the rumors.
“I think we’ve honed that pretty well here,” he said.
Monday was a big news day for The Lantern, and it was also a big deadline day. The Lantern publishes online daily and in print Tuesday and Thursday. Staff met at 5 p.m. Monday and trashed their previous plan, devoting almost all of the paper to the attack.
As they worked, boxes of cookies came into the newsroom from newsrooms at Ohio University, the University of Kansas and Syracuse University. And, as so many newsrooms do when big, tough news hits their peers, the Cincinnati Enquirer sent pizzas.
Since Monday, things have quieted on campus.
“But for us, they haven’t really,” Roll said.
They’re working on follow-ups, including stories about the victims, a vigil, student and faculty reactions and how Muslim and Somali student organizations are responding. The newsroom’s still in all-hands-on-deck-mode, Roll said, unraveling the story behind the breaking news.
This is, after all, what they’re here for, Ruibal said.
“No one can cover Ohio State, no one should be able to cover Ohio State, better than us.”