Students, Paper Recall 1959 Murders

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By: Graham Webster

One year of work by almost 20 journalists culminated in early April in a massive four-day series in the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World. Their inspiration: the 40th anniversary of In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s breakthrough “nonfiction novel” about the murders of a Kansas farm family. The series consisted of 15 pages of reporting and a 30-minute documentary which aired on the paper’s cable station. Just as notable: No one involved in producing the project is nearly old enough to remember the 1959 murders.

The project was produced entirely by students in the journalism school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Forty-five years after the murders of the Clutter family, the impetus for Capote’s book, the students convinced some of the major figures in the case to talk for the first time. And they convinced a newspaper to run their work.

“Faculty members at the University of Nebraska came to us and presented the idea for the series to our owner, Dolph C. Simons Jr., and he thought it was a worthwhile project,” recalls Ralph Gage, the Journal-World’s chief operating officer. “He was enthusiastic about giving our readers something special that they couldn’t get anywhere else.”

The size of the package was unprecedented for the Journal-World, which like any other paper publishes its share of series. “I can’t remember anything quite this massive,” Gage says. The reporting came out of a class known as Depth Reporting. The idea came to the j-school’s dean, Will Norton, “somewhere on some lonely highway,” instructor Jerry Sass says.

“They gathered up a group of eight or nine students last year, and we started doing some background research and reading the book last spring,” says Melissa Lee, who worked on the project and is currently editor in chief of The Daily Nebraskan. Ultimately, the students came up with a wealth of new information ? including the first interviews ever given by several key players in the story. Some discovered one way to grease the wheels when knocking on the door of someone’s home for a difficult interview. “It helps if you bring a pie,” Sass notes.

A dozen student reporters traveled repeatedly to Kansas during the fall, and in January, five student editors and page designers took over, producing ready-made pages for the Journal-World.

“We got one of the most difficult interviews while we were down there with Bobby Rupp, who was the boyfriend of [murder victim] Nancy Clutter,” says Sass. Rupp, who had never spoken publicly before this series, was the last to see the Clutter family alive and had initially been questioned as a suspect in their murders.

The Journal-World staff, Sass says, soon put the copy in house style and prepared a multimedia Web presence for the project. “They didn’t second-guess a thing we did,” he says. “I don’t know of any place that’s done anything like that.”

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