On Tuesday morning, as they have for so many mornings now, Glenn Smith, Jennifer Berry Hawes and Abigail Darlington walked into Charleston’s District Court at 85 Broad Street with the tools they would need to tell the story.
Hawes brought her 8.5-by-11-inch yellow notebook and whatever pen she had grabbed from the newsroom. Smith came ready to liveblog with his laptop and phone. Darlington planned to catch and share each bit of the news on her laptop, Tweetdeck open and ready.
On the day of the closing arguments in the penalty phase of the trial for a man who killed nine Black men and women inside Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015, each journalist from The Post and Courier knew their role. And each depended on the other two.
Since covering another big Charleston story last month, the murder trial in the death of Walter Scott, they’ve figured out a system to bring the news from the courthouse to their community in several ways, from a podcast to social media to a liveblog to comprehensive stories combining the tweets and the blog with reporting from inside the courtroom.
Together, they’re covering an epic moment in Charleston’s history, Smith said on Monday. And it’s one that, as a local news organization, they’re in the right spot to tell.
“We know the story better than anyone,” he said.
— Abigail Darlington (@A_Big_Gail) January 10, 2017
The phone kept ringing
On that June 2015 night, Smith was around the corner at a friend’s house for band practice. The watchdog/public service editor and member of the Post and Courier’s 2015 Pulitzer-winning team lives about two blocks from Emanuel AME. His phone kept ringing that night.
It was the newsroom.
When he finally picked it up, Smith learned there had been a shooting down the street. He headed there and joined a night cops reporter and a photographer. They spent the night at the church and in the newsroom as the story unfolded.
Hawes was at home that night, ready to get into bed and read, when she checked her phone and saw the news on Twitter. Hawes, also a member of the 2015 Pulitzer team, had previously worked as the Post and Courier’s religion reporter. Her kids went to school across the street from the church. That night, before it became clear that a hate crime took place, she put together a story about the church’s long history.
Since then, they’ve figured out how to cover the story for social, digital and the paper. And they are benefiting from some added steps toward transparency from the federal court system.
As it did with the Boston Marathon bombing, the court opened an adjoining courtroom where journalists can work with laptops and phones.
“It’s kind of this giant media room,” Smith said.
He and Darlington work alongside 30 or more reporters from The New York Times, The New Yorker, BuzzFeed News, local TV and more. A live feed is shown, and he blogs while Darlington manages Twitter. During breaks, Hawes, who is also working on a book about the murders, hurries in from the courtroom to add things her colleagues can’t see from the feed.
The whole process offers more transparency and gives their audience a real-time seat at the table, Smith said.
The court is also uploading exhibits online every night, giving the Post and Courier the ability to share things such as Dylann Roof’s jailhouse journal and the motions he’s filed throughout the case. The federal court system is also filming how the special media accommodations are working, Smith said, with plans to show the process to other courtrooms.
It’s a long way from no electronics in the courthouse at all, dashing to a nearby car during breaks and dictating the latest over your phone, Smith said.
“It really could be a great boon for trial coverage.”
Pulling the thread
As Smith, Hawes and Darlington have covered the story of Roof’s trial, the Post and Courier also offered a broader perspective on that story and the other that rocked Charleston in 2015: the death of Walter Scott, a Black driver who was shot and killed by Michael Slager, a White police officer.
“2015 was a heartbreaking year for Charleston,” said Caitlin Byrd, a digital content producer. “You didn’t have to live here to know how hard it was.”
Byrd, who has been at the Post and Courier since last January, knew the trials for both were coming and that there would be national interest. She and others she worked with wanted to find a way to reach the national audience people with the Post and Courier’s work. So they launched a podcast called The Thread.
Episodes in the first season, which isn’t yet over, include a look into how both events changed the community and what links them. Some listeners have responded that Slager and Roof aren’t the same, but if you listen to the podcast, Byrd said, you’ll hear that that’s not what they’re trying to say.
“We’re really trying to get at those bigger issues,” she said.
Covering two major stories with race at their core has been challenging for the all-White podcast team, she said. They’ve had to check their assumptions and lean heavily on the reporting. The team covering Roof’s trial is also all White. (Poynter has this same issue.)
“We are woefully behind on diversifying our news staff,” said Mitch Pugh, executive editor. “We know it’s a problem. We’re working to address it, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be.”
Three of the last five hires at the news organization have been journalists of color. And having experienced reporters who have deep ties with the community has helped their coverage, too, Pugh said.
“When you’re in a position like this, the best thing you can do is talk to and listen to the community.”
On the night Roof murdered nine members of her community, Darlington, then an entertainment reporter, was at home. The Charleston native waited, ready in case she was needed, and watched the story on Twitter and the local news. The next day, she started confirming the identities of the victims.
On Tuesday, the last day of the penalty phase of the trial, she listened from a nearby courtroom to the prosecution’s two-hour closing argument and then to Roof’s. His took about six minutes.
This is Darlington’s first trial to cover.
“It feels like this is the embodiment of good versus evil in a lot of ways in an actual courtroom,” she said.
The murders and trial that followed has brought up tough discussions about race in the community and revealed old wounds that, to some, had been glossed over. There are, also, so many interwoven lives, Hawes said, from the families and friends who lost people that day to the community itself that Roof stalked while no one was aware.
Because of that, she said, they want to make sure they’re telling the story for everyone, in whatever way they need to find it. And they hear from those people, too, from the elders of the church who read the paper each morning and call Hawes to the people on Twitter following Smith and Darlington with each post and tweet.
The story they’re telling is one of enormous significance for the community, Smith said. It shook people deeply. The sense of loss here is still present.
“We didn’t know any of these folks personally beforehand,” Smith said. “But you lost your neighbor, and everyone feels that.”