By: David Noack
JFK Jr., now ?
Local Cape Cod Times leads the way in coverage
For the Cape Cod Times, the disappearance of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts was a local story turned global.
Faced with an onslaught of press covering every angle of the initial mystery surrounding the whereabouts of Kennedy, 38, his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, 33, and his sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette, 34, and the subsequent tragic turn of events, the paper was able to break exclusives, at the same time culling sources and taking advantage of an intricate knowledge of the area to pen personal stories about the Kennedy family.
The Ottaway Newspapers Inc.-owned Times ? in a string of stories picked up by The Associated Press, CNN, and ABC- TV’s “Good Morning America,” among others ? was the first to report the JFK Jr. plane’s registration papers washing ashore, the fact that the plane’s engine was rebuilt, and the Kennedy family’s request that autopsy photographs not be taken for fear they would wind up in the tabloids and on the Internet.
It’s been that kind of week for the 50,000-circulation daily, which found itself in the middle of the biggest story of the year so far.
“We have to plant reporters in the same places that the mobs are. But a lot of times, these [other media] organizations, they are not thinking outside of the box. They are doing all the typical stuff. For us, it’s a global and hometown story, so we are trying to put a human face on it, if possible. We won’t tell the story about John John, the celebrity in New York. We’ll tell the story about John John, where he went swimming, where he liked to kayak, and what he was like on the Vineyard,” says editor in chief Cliff Schechtman.
That said, Schechtman notes the exclusive stories the Times reporters did get were not handed to them on a silver platter.
Schechtman says that it’s always difficult to compete against the TV networks and major newspapers, but boasts that the paper is holding its own and is “kicking some butt. We’ve had stories that none of the others have had. These are very competitive stories. It’s been on the wires and on TV. There are sources who will talk to us more readily because we have the context.”
He attributes the comprehensive and detailed coverage to a seasoned staff of reporters. Its average age is 42 years old. Many of the editorial staffers have worked at the paper for more than a decade. In all, 18 reporters and photographers covered the story.
“These people are professionals. They can work anywhere, but they work here because this is Cape Cod. This is a gorgeous place,” Schechtman says.
From July 18, the day after the story that the plane was missing broke, to July 23, the Times had run between 35 to 40 local stories. Since the story started, the paper has run 30 pages of Kennedy-related stories in all, with 16 pages being added to accommodate the blanket coverage.
“This is one of the biggest stories that any of [the Times reporters] have ever covered, and we’ve gotten such attention because it’s in our hometown and because of some of our coverage ? It’s great for the staff,” Schechtman says.
He says that since the staff has been on such an emotional and physical high in doing the story, he now has to decide how to begin to cut back coverage, get back to a normal routine, and let reporters and editors take some time off and take care of personal business.
That sentiment is echoed by news editor Mark Mulcahy, who says the staff has been making personal sacrifices by working long hours over the last week and basically put their lives on hold to cover the story.
“Things will start now winding down,” says Mulcahy.
Anne Brennan, who lives an hour from the newspaper, showed up for work Monday at 6 a.m. and has not been home since. She has been staying with colleagues and putting in 12- to 14-hour days. She has covered the Kennedys from time to time, including the weddings of Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and Maria Shriver as well as the funeral of Rose Kennedy.
“I think our sources have been great in giving us inside information, like the fact that the plane’s registration washed up on shore, hours after the plane was reported missing. ? I had some sources close to the family who told me how Sen. [Edward] Kennedy was handling this freshest of tragedies and how his friends were helping him through this,” says Brennan.
Reporter Karen Jeffrey says the story about the plane’s registration papers washing ashore is a good example of getting information from local sources.
“We can get things sometimes that other people can’t because we know the police, we know the firefighters, we know the normal, everyday people whose lives are affected by a big event like this,” says Jeffrey, who has worked at the paper for 18 years.
She says that just before the story broke, she had said goodbye to house guests and was planning to catch up on cleaning and laundry ? and then the phone rang.
“I have not one piece of clean clothes left. I have no towels left. I would say my [work]days have been, at a minimum, 15 hours,” she says.
The tragedy has boosted the newspaper’s circulation for the last week. In fact, last Sunday, July 18, the first day that newspapers were able to tackle the story, the paper reached a new circulation record, selling 74,500 copies, surpassing a Sunday circulation record set this Fourth of July, when 73,421 papers were sold. On weekdays, the paper also sold an average of 5,900 copies a day more last week than the week before.
?(Editor & Publisher Web Site:http:www.mediainfo.com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher July 24, 1999) [Caption]