Honoring the Virginia Tech Student Paper

By: Joe Strupp

The folks at the Pulitzer Prize office say they don’t recall a college newspaper ever winning the coveted awards. Well come next spring, that may need to change. Given everything the student-run Collegiate Times of Virginia Tech has accomplished in the past week, from online scoops to poignant, thoughtful print presentations, the daily paper may deserve some consideration, even if a special category is required.

From the first hours that the deadly rampage, which ended with 33 dead including the shooter, occurred, Editor Amie Steele — I interviewed her last Tuesday — and her staff of several dozen student scribes have provided a mix of stories on student reaction, campus impact, and investigators’ activities.

Starting with first online word of the shootings, the paper went full tilt on its Web site, moving to another server when traffic overloaded downed their main space. Along with responding to demanding inquiries from news outlets worldwide, the youngsters nabbed a slew of scoops — including the first list of the confirmed dead and some key initial interviews with witnesses.

When the campus outlet posted the list of deceased, several newspapers, including The New York Times and Richmond Times-Dispatch, linked to the list as their only original source. Mixing a blog-type update approach with in-depth news articles, the Collegiate Times kept up both its print paper and online version going through the weekend.

And most important, the paper did not forget who its audience was. Stories were not written for the outside reader and news agencies; it targeted fellow students with accounts that sought to relate to on-campus living, as well as updates on everything from which campus services were opened and closed to the college baseball team’s first game after the shooting.

Individual stories, meanwhile, included a Collegiate Times photographer briefly being held last Monday because he “fit the profile” of the shooter and the effect of the outside media crunch on student parking. Mixed in have been student columns that offer a stronger reflection on the events than some might expect from those still learning the trade.

“This doesn’t happen to us. It just plain doesn’t happen to us. It’s one of those things you see on the TV and think “My God!” For a while, you’re glued to the TV, in shock and horror,” Columnist David Covucci wrote last Wednesday. “But then you move on, because it wasn’t us. So it wasn’t real. It’s never us; it’s always somewhere else, somewhere far away where we don’t have to worry about it. It happens to other people, in other places, at other times.”

Most of all, these students did not let the personal impact of the tragedy stop them from covering the story. Just as New York reporters during Sept. 11 or those in Oklahoma City during that terrible bombing had to grin and bear it, the Collegiate Times scribes, including a handful who have spoken with E&P during the week, forged ahead and did the work.

Moreover, these still-learning cubs are, of course, working without pay, and with a need to get their own lives back in order when classes resume Monday. Most we spoke with said they wanted their fellow students to know what was going on, admitting that there was an excitement to the story, but absolutely no joy.

“Place yourself amongst those who still ring with disbelief and shock over what happened yesterday,” Sports Editor Ryan McConnell wrote mid-week. “As a nation, we thrived together after 9/11. After 4/16/07, I hope we do the same.”

Then there is Steele, an unknown student journalist who took over as editor less than three weeks before the shooting. Before the events of last Monday, no one in journalism had heard of her. By Wednesday, the White House Correspondents’ Association had invited her to their annual star-studded dinner Saturday night, joining the likes of Katie Couric and Henry Kissinger.

I was there when the student brought the room to its feet upon introduction, but did not forget her classmates when she led the 3,000 attendees in a rousing cheer of “Let’s Go Hokies!”

Now when the Pulitzer judges review next year’s submissions, they will undoubtedly include strong candidates from the likes of The Washington Post and nearby Richmond and Roanoke papers. Perhaps those commercial dailies will even have a more powerful argument for the award given their vast resources and quality.

But I will urge the Pulitzer jurors to consider how these junior reporters have acted during the past seven days, and likely in the coming weeks. If the mission of the Pulitzers is to honor the best in newspaper coverage, this student publication, and Web site, have provided more than its readers could expect, against trying circumstances and challenges no other paper on the same horrific story have had to endure.

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Published: April 23, 2007

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