Small Paper, Big Story p. 12

By: Carol Schlagheck

WHEN COMAIR FLIGHT 3272, a commuter plane bound for Detroit Metropolitan Airport from Cincinnati, fell from the sky Jan. 9, it crashed in a snowy farm field just 8 miles from the office of the 23,000-circulation Monroe Evening News, Monroe, Mich.
Evening News reporters and photographers were first on the scene of the 4 p.m. crash, but feared they would be last to tell the story.
“Our paper was just being delivered, at some houses, as the plane went down,” said city editor Cindy Chapman.
It was the biggest local story in anyone’s memory, and the timing couldn’t have been worse for an afternoon paper.
As out-of-town media began arriving at the scene, Chapman realized, “The people in our community, most affected by it second only to the families of the victims, were going to get their reports from an outside news agency.” The Detroit and Toledo papers, all morning editions, would be first with print versions of the crash.
That scenario changed when, at Chapman’s urging, the Evening News printed its first “extra” since Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater in 1964.
The four-page special edition rolled off the presses at 4:30 a.m. the next day and was in vending boxes alongside the morning competition.
Chapman, a former police reporter, had been out at the scene, using her connections to get newer staff members beyond the yellow tape.
“I think being there is what made the difference,” Chapman said. “Seeing not only the scope of the accident, but the media response, that’s what told me we had to do everything we could to pull this off.”
National Public Radio interviewed Evening News reporter Ray Kisonas by cell phone as he surveyed the crash. Detroit media were in helicopters overhead and others were setting up nearby. CNN sent 20 people.
Chapman proposed a morning special edition when she called in to apprise managing editor Deborah Saul of the scene.
“She didn’t laugh me right off the phone ? which I kind of expected, that it would be out of the question,” Chapman said. “By the time I got back, there was this mini-powwow going on with department heads.”
Saul had grabbed news editor Harry Oscheln and headed for the office of Steve Gray, editor and president of the employee-owned newspaper. Gray called in Lonnie Peppler, marketing director; Tom Pottorff, circulation manager; and Mike Fuson, an assistant circulation manager. An “extra” would be expensive. It would require a great deal of labor and make almost no money. It would contain no advertising. It would be sold only in vending boxes because there wasn’t time to mobilize an entire circulation team.
For Gray, whose family had owned the newspaper before an employee stock ownership plan gave employees a controlling interest, the idea of an extra evoked nostalgia. As a 13-year-old paperboy, he had delivered the 1964 election extra.
But was there a need for an extra in 1997? Saul said any doubt melted under the heat of Chapman’s enthusiasm. Returning from the crash, Chapman rushed to the meeting taking place outside Gray’s office and said she wanted the Evening News on the street by morning, alongside
the Detroit and Toledo papers.
“This is our story. We cannot give this away,” she told Gray, later saying, “That’s what I thought we’d be doing if we waited until the next day. I knew we could do it. With the staff we have and their personalities, I knew they would do what it took. I didn’t have any question that if we got the OK, it would be done. We would do it.”
They called in Wally Cron, pressroom foreman. “Go for it,” he said.
In a column two days later, Gray explained the decision: “Because this is our community, we felt we could do a better job of covering the story ? for local readers, anyway ? than anyone else . . . . Getting a tough story to the readers under pressure is the biggest challenge and the greatest satisfaction in the news business, and the staff couldn’t bear the thought of letting every other news medium do it first.”
The staff put together a four-page special edition by 3 a.m. Cron and assistant pressroom foreman Dale Hill came in and printed 2,118 papers. It carried no ads.
The response was great, Saul and Chapman said.
The next morning, radio stations in Monroe, Toledo and Detroit were telling listeners about the Evening News’ extra.
Some Detroit television anchors showed the paper on their broadcasts.
“We were doing for our readers what I think we should be doing,” said Saul.
Evening paper puts out morning extra on Michigan plane crash
?(Schlagheck is assistant professor of journalism at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti.) [Caption]
?( E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo.com.)
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher March 22, 1997)

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