’10 That Do It Right’ No. 4: ‘The Roanoke Times’

By: Jennifer Saba

Every summer, E&P selects its “10 That Do It Right” from the nation’s daily and weekly newspapers. This is by no means a “10 Best” list but rather a hat tip to a variety of publications which have, through excellence or innovation, shown the way in one area or another, such as news coverage, circulation, design, diversity or online.

Today we continue spotlighting this year’s picks (also available for subscribers on this site in the Print section).

The fourth selection, The Roanoke (Va.) Times, follows.

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When a crazed youth unleashed a torrent of gunfire on April 16, killing more than 30 and injuring scores of people on the Virginia Tech campus, The Roanoke Times realized it was an event of national importance. But it knew the community depended on the local paper for up-to-the-minute, sobering insight.

The paper immediately jumped on the story by using its Web site to disseminate images and information blog-style about the shootings from the time the news broke that two people were found dead on the campus that morning. “Our initial reaction was to get as much online as possible, since it was going to be a developing story with lots of tentacles,” recalls Carole Tarrant, who was named editor in mid-May.

Roanoke Times staff photos showing bleeding students being carried out of buildings or to waiting ambulances appeared on front pages and the top of Web sites at The New York Times and hundreds of other news outlets.

When a big story breaks, it’s tempting to take a highly reactive approach: Post first, correct later. “I kept cautioning people that it wasn’t about being first, it was about being right,” Tarrant says, adding that no corrections were issued online during its extensive coverage. The staff took as much care throughout the week, carrying anywhere from 12- to 20-page sections about the massacre.

Tarrant says when she first visited the campus after the shootings, she noticed all the newspaper racks surrounding the campus of Virginia Tech. It informed the paper’s choice of Page One photos. “I was just trying to imagine, what if there was a box out there and there was a big picture of [the shooter]?” adds the editor. That day, the paper decided to run the killer’s picture inside.

Publisher Debbie Meade attributes the quick, sure-footed action to the fact that synergy-wise, the Roanoke Times has been ahead of the pack for some time now. Its online and newspaper divisions were merged about seven years ago, way before it was in vogue. “Innovation is part of our history,” she says.

Daily circulation is up, too. The latest Audit Bureau of Circulations report ending in March reveals that Monday-through- Friday had gained 2.5% from the previous year. Circulation Director Kathy Gravely attributes the rise to the push to get subscribers on EZPay.

It might be construed as unfortunate timing that one month before the massacre, the paper pulled an online database of state residents licensed to carry concealed weapons after negative reaction from readers. Editorial Page Editor Dan Radmacher says they took down the information when they realized the list included law enforcement officials and domestic violence victims. In the wake of the shootings, the editorial page continues to support the gun ban at the Virginia Tech campus, despite some loud local criticism.

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