February 11, 2016

Earlier this afternoon, the last holdout from a group of armed protesters that seized federal buildings near the town of Burns, Oregon gave himself up.

David Fry’s surrender marked the end of a 41-day standoff that’s seen scrutiny from national and regional outlets alike. But for The Oregonian, which has been covering the occupation since it began in January, the story’s far from over.

Below is a question-and-answer session conducted over email with Mark Katches, the editor of The Oregonian, about how the newspaper covered the standoff over the last month, and how he sees that coverage changing now that the confrontation is over.

Now that the standoff is over, does The Oregonian plan to follow this story? If so, how?

Thankfully, it looks like a lot of the court coverage will occur a couple blocks from our newsroom here at the federal courthouse in Portland. We’ll certainly be all over that. But I think it will also be important to keep an eye on this ongoing political and cultural story playing out in rural Oregon and in other parts of the country. It doesn’t sound like the issues are going to go away any time soon.

I would guess that the adversarial nature of this story made it hard to report. Were you able to reach the protesters to get their voices in your stories? If so, how? And how did you deal with reticent law enforcement during the ongoing situation?

Our reporters have done a great job managing the key sources throughout this ordeal. They’ve had access to the protesters throughout most of the occupation. And we’ve done a remarkable job profiling the major players. Some of our coverage has irked the protesters. Some of our coverage has irked law enforcement. That’s just par for the course and it probably means we’re doing our jobs right. One thing we didn’t do is embed or spend time with the protesters inside the refuge buildings. For us, that felt like a potentially dangerous situation, and we didn’t want to put any of our reporters in harm’s way during a fluid, active standoff with a group of wild card, armed occupants.

Logistically, this seems like a tricky story to cover. The protesters were holed up in a rural area, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. How did you handle getting reporters to and from the scene? How close do you need to be to cover it?

Let’s put it this way, we blew out our travel budget in January. Burns is about five hours away, so it’s not easy to reach, especially in winter. And the degree of difficulty gets higher when you factor in the spotty cell service or the fact that Burns is so small you can’t even rent a car there. The refuge is 40 miles from Burns, so it’s a vast territory to cover on the ground.

We’ve flown people to Boise on a couple of occasions because it was a faster drive than from Portland. We’ve had several reporters volunteer to go out to the scene for as many as three tours of duty. We’ve kept people there for four or five days at a time, sometimes longer. We’ve had as many as six people on the ground and a whole crew in Portland running down leads, generating enterprise and covering the early court appearances. We’ve sent people to Idaho, Utah, Nevada and Arizona for this story.

During the first days of the occupation, on the day of the shooting, and as the occupation has neared an end, we’ve had upward of three dozen people working on the story from various locations. It’s been a total team effort.

Although we’ve cycled some folks in and out, we’ve had a few constants. Our director of news Therese Bottomly and our breaking news editor Margaret Haberman haven’t had a day off. And then there’s the unstoppable force that is Les Zaitz. Les is a Pulitzer finalist with 40 years of reporting experience. He’s our senior watchdog reporter and he lives on his ranch, just a couple of hours from Burns.

Les has been our secret weapon on this story, and he’s worked virtually every day. He’s already one of the best sourced reporters in the state, but especially in rural Oregon, no one can compete with him. He’s been helping to manage our resources on the ground in addition to breaking one story after another.

Speaking of Zaitz — on Wednesday, he mentioned that a Grant County sheriff brought up the possibility of “legal action” to a local district attorney after Zaitz contacted him for a story. Is this typical of law enforcement’s disposition toward your reporters for this story? If so, how are you dealing with that?

That was an odd situation. Les tried to contact the sheriff using the email address listed on his public website and the sheriff apparently didn’t appreciate that. I think whenever you cover a story with a lot of drama and tension, you’re prone to seeing exaggerated reactions. I wouldn’t say it was a typical reaction and our reporters, especially Les, have established good access — or had really good access before this even started.

Can you talk a little bit about the audience for these stories? Have the stories been read widely outside of Oregon? Inside? Do you have a sense of what the readership looks like compared to coverage in other areas?

The audience has been huge. Last month we set an all-time record on OregonLive with more than 75 million page views. A typical month for us is a bit higher than 60 million page views. Since the start of the year, our coverage of the occupation has generated more than 16 million page views and counting. Our stories have been shared on social media more than 750,000 times. We’ve had nearly a quarter million comments on our stories. The level of engagement with our content has been phenomenal. Early on, we began posting each morning a “what you need to know” about the standoff post, which has helped catch up readers by aggregating the most recent developments. It’s helped readers get their bearings.

We’re not the only media out there, and some are doing a really fine job. Oregon Public Broadcasting, in particular, has done impressive work. But the audience numbers clearly show we’ve been far and away the “go-to” source for coverage. We’ve devoted the most resources and we’ve broken the most news.

How did you deploy your reporters, editors and photographers to cover this story? Has your coverage of the rest of Oregon changed as a result? If so, how?

This has been the dominant story of the month and really unlike any breaking news story I’ve ever seen. Most breaking news stories come and go pretty quickly. A tragedy. A fast-moving natural disaster. The occupation alone has gone on for more than 40 days now.

In context, this story broke just a couple of days after we said goodbye to some fine veteran journalists who took buyouts. The newsroom response has been heartening. We’ve also really hit our stride with video. Our video team has been either on the scene or in Portland pulling together feeds from reporters or producing their own work around the standoff.

Our video views surpassed 1.5 million in January. In context, that’s more traffic just to our videos than some of the other Oregon media get on their entire websites in a month. We’re fortunate that we still have a newsroom that is large enough to be able to cover other important news that’s happening, but we’ve had to set aside some longer-term or mid-range enterprise stories to devote the right number of resources to this. We’ll get back to that soon enough.

As you’re undoubtedly aware, there has been an ongoing debate as to how the protesters should be described. The Associated Press ruled in January that they should be called “armed ranchers,” not militia. The Oregonian, I think, continues to use the words militant and militia. How did your newsroom arrive at that decision?

I don’t think there is one neat way to describe them. When they first took over the refuge, we started off calling them “militia.” But after the first day of the occupation, we changed to “militants” because it felt like a more precise definition. A militant is defined as someone who is combative or aggressive in support of a political cause. That seemed to fit. A “militia” has a distinctly different definition and it didn’t feel quite right. It was enough to prompt us to make a quick, early change. A little later on we began using the terms “occupants,” “armed occupants” or “armed protestors” in addition to “militants.”

Everyone of these terms is accurate. We occasionally use “militia” or “self-styled militia” when occupants refer to themselves or other groups that way.

This story has seen a lot of scrutiny from national media outlets, more than many stories covered by The Oregonian. Does the glare of the national media make covering the story harder? Easier? Does it change the way you do things?

The glare of the national media doesn’t really matter to us. But knowing that we have a huge daily audience reading our work, watching our videos and scanning our pictures does help fuel us — just like any big story would get your adrenaline flowing. For us, this is a story we’ve felt like we’ve owned. Les wrote a big two-part package in late December that set this whole thing up before anyone else had even noticed anything was simmering. And we’ve had more people working the story than anyone else to ensure that we would remain the go-to source for information. The audience metrics certainly support that.

Correction: A previous version of this story said reporters from The Oregonian didn’t spend any time at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. In fact, reporters from The Oregonian didn’t spend time inside the buildings on the refuge.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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