How ‘Orlando Sentinel’ Broke Astronaut Arrest Story

By: Joe Strupp

The Orlando Sentinel mixed old-fashioned beat reporting with the modern advantages of the Web to break the sensational story Monday evening of a NASA astronaut’s arrest on charges she attacked the girlfriend of another astronaut in an unfolding love triangle that has drawn national attention.

The paper, which broke the story on its Web site at about 6 p.m. Monday, had been tracking the scandal all day after a tip from a source at the Orlando Airport, where the alleged attack occurred. Other papers have played catchup today, focusing on the new tidbit that the woman wore diapers on a long car trip to Orlando so she wouldn’t have to stop for a bathroom break. That’s right in the lede of the current New York Times report.

“We broke it on our Web site, we felt we had an exclusive story, an important story, a national story and we needed to break it on the Web,” said Charlotte Hall, Sentinel editor and senior vice president. “Clearly, our role as a continuous newsroom has changed.”

The scoop marked the second time in less than a week that a newspaper broke a national story on its Web, coming five days after the San Francisco Chronicle scooped all other news outlets last Wednesday with first word of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s city hall affair.

Along with the breaking story, by police reporter Henry Pierson Curtis, the Sentinel also posted a copy of the arrest report and various photos of the suspect, Lisa Marie Nowak, both from her arrest and from the NASA web site.

“More and more, papers have to do this,” Hall said about the Web use. “Our Web site gave us a great way to be ahead of the story.”

But Hall credited the scoop to the shoe-leather work by reporters on the story. In addition to Curtis, transportation reporter Beth Kassab and NASA reporter Michael Cabbage brought the story out first. “This was completely beat-driven,” said Curtis.

Curtis said the paper first learned of the incident when Kassab got a tip on her cell phone Monday as she drove to work at about 8:30 a.m. from a source at the Orlando Airport, where the alleged incident occurred. Police reports later revealed that Nowak had allegedly approached the victim, Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman, in the airport parking lot after 1 a.m., sprayed her with pepper spray, and tried to get into her car.

Police said that Nowak told them she had targeted Shipman because she was involved with Bill Oefelein, another NASA astronaut with whom Nowak had sought a relationship.

Curtis said Kassab’s source told her “that there appeared to have been a catfight between some astronauts at the airport. She called it in to an editor who passed it on to me to cover it.” He said he jumped on the story at about 9:30 a.m. and later learned that Nowak had been undergoing questioning most of the day. She was formally charged on several counts at about 5 p.m.

“I worked it throughout the day, talked to a number of people and got details and names,” he said. “It was mostly phone work and talking to our NASA reporter [Cabbage] and working sources.”

Curtis said it was pretty clear what the story was by early afternoon, but “we didn’t have any confirmation. We are not going to run something like that” without confirmation.

Hall said it was important for editors to have the details nailed down and confirmed before posting anything. “It was matter of talking to law enforcement authorities and getting them to confirm and taking the steps to verify a story,” she said. “It was an example of very, very good beat reporting and influenced by our whole desire to be first on the story.”

Curtis also praised photographer Red Huber, whom he said got several dramatic photos of Nowak being led into police custody. “He got an extraordinary photo of her in a squad car going to jail,” Curtis said. “But to see her booking photo beside another photo of her standing next to President Bush last fall really showed it, showed someone whose world was coming down.”


Related E&P Stories:

YOUR NIGHTLY VIDEO: Busted Astronaut Lisa Nowak Speaks To You — From Space!

Orlando Paper’s Blog Quoted Arrested Astronaut Defending ‘Risk’

From Tornados to Astronaut’s Attack: Wild Week for ‘Orlando Sentinel’

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