October 3, 2017

The number of dead in Las Vegas is staggering, John Cutter thought on Monday.

The managing editor of the Orlando Sentinel has felt this way before, when 49 were killed a little more than a year ago at Pulse Nightclub. 

"You always figure 'we'll be the last,'" he said.

But when he woke to the news of the latest mass shooting, "I don't even know how to describe how horrible the feeling was."

He knew journalists had been out all night covering the story, and that they have a lot of work ahead of them.

Cutter and three other journalists who covered Pulse from Orlando spoke with Poynter on Monday via phone, email and direct message on Twitter to share thoughts, tips and advice for local journalists in Las Vegas. 

Here's what they said:

Take care of your staff

Cutter's first thought wasn't how to organize or deal with the national media. It was about taking care of the journalists covering the news. And, he's guessing Las Vegas newsrooms are doing more with less, like everywhere else. 

"You go so hard at this and you know how important it is," he said. "You want to do a job to honor what happened and capture it in all its elements."

Watch for people who might be taking the news more personally than others, he said. And look for moments that offer respite. In Orlando, that included food and care packages from other newsrooms and a visit by therapy dogs

"Those were really important moments that didn't have a lot do to with how we were covering the story but did have a lot to do with how our staff was able to do with the long haul," he said.

Take care of yourself

After covering the Newtown shooting in 2012 for WVIT, Katy Camp never expected unimaginable tragedy would hit the next place she lived. In 2016, when she worked at WFTV in Orlando, it did.  

"You think the hardest part of this story has already happened, but it hasn’t," she said. "The worst parts are ahead when you start to learn about the victims and tell their stories. Seeing their pictures, talking to their friends and family – just wrapping your head around the ‘why’ part of this when you try to understand why so many innocent, regular people died at the hands of a mad man."

Give yourself permission to grieve, she said, and don't feel guilty about it. 

"This atrocious thing just happened in the city you call home, and as a local journalist, you will feel it differently than the national and out of market media who parachute in for it."

Talk to someone who specializes in grief and trauma if you need it. And if a friend or family member wants to come help take care of things for you for a few days, let them.

"The adrenaline will wear off," she said, "and you will crash."

Take your time

Christal Hayes was the Sentinel's first reporter on the scene after news of a shooting in Orlando first broke. Now, she covers breaking news for Newsweek. 

Make sure, she said, that the information you have is verified.

"And ask someone how they know something. You need to be dependable to people who are looking for answers. Make sure you’re correct before spreading misinformation."

Rely on digital habits for the short-term, and print habits for the long-term

On the day of the Pulse shooting, the Sentinel produced 30 videos and 40 stories online, plus an eight-page special section. And they knew that they wanted to make a statement with the next day's front page. 

Having some print habits, including bigger packages and retrospectives, helped them think ahead and balance the chaos of the moment, Cutter said. 

Get organized

Get your second string ready to replace the people who covered the news as it happened, said Catherine Welch, news director at Orlando's WMFE.  

"The funerals are going to start happening probably over the weekend, and you're going to need new, fresh people."

The Sentinel set up spreadsheets to keep track of the people they were contacting and who was assigned to the task. That kept reporters from repeating each other's work and from knocking on the same doors. 

Set boundaries

"The world media will descend upon you," Welch said. "In your head, quickly, establish guidelines."

Who will you grant interviews to? What guidance will you offer staff for dealing with media requests? 

Let them know they're allowed to say no, she said. 

"One thing I didn't anticipate is that we would become the central place every outlet would call," Cutter said.

For awhile, it was really distracting. So he picked one person to manage press requests. He wanted the voice of local media to be represented, but he didn't want it distracting the newsroom from the work they had to do. 

Ask for help

What nearby news organizations can help out? Welch asked. Can a nearby editor help with spot news or editing features, or just be someone to help think through what's happening?

"If you're the only editorial gatekeeper, like small and midsized newsrooms are, you can only do so much."

Find people in the building not attached to news but who know how to publish and use them, she said. Ask them to watch Twitter and help with Facebook. 

Plan for the long haul

Who will stay on this story? Cutter asked. Who will tell it in a different way, perhaps through video, a podcast, a narrative? 

"Also, keep every number for every person you talk with," Hayes said. "Those people will be invaluable sources later on as your community moves forward and the national media leave."

Cutter still has the front pages from the Sentinel's coverage of what happened in Orlando up in his office. They remind him of what they went through and how they tried to tell the story. 

And one more thing helped, he said – the care packages with notes from other newsrooms who'd covered tragedy.

The Sentinel is making one now for journalists in Las Vegas. 

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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