By: Joe Strupp
When newspaper Web sites hit record highs, the reason usually involves coverage of a big local news event, election, or some kind of national championship team.
But a movie? That appears to be the cause of record online traffic for the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington, W.V.
Of course, the film “We Are Marshall,” which depicts the tragic 1970 plane crash that killed 75 players, coaches and other members of the nearby Marshall University football team is more than just a movie. To local residents, and the newspaper, it is part of the community’s history, the deadliest sports-related tragedy ever. “It has been an ongoing story for 36 years,” said Executive Editor Ed Dawson, who has been at the paper for five years. “To some extent, when the national media moved on after it happened, the story of recovery and rebuilding the program has been ongoing.”
So it may not be surprising that when the film, starring Matthew McConaughey, had its local premiere on Dec. 12, the Herald-Dispatch Web site had its busiest day ever with 285,000 page views. That high was trounced just a day later, on Dec. 13, when the page views topped 448,000. The previous record, from the last Election Day, was just 150,000.
“This would be our biggest single Web effort,” Dawson said about the online coverage that began last spring when filming started. The paper jumped on the Hollywood account as both a way to explore the tragedy and follow the production. The first of three special sections was published in April, while the paper began building a Web page dedicated to the deadly event and the film.
With online items ranging from stories of the survivors and life on the movie set to a map of local sites where filming occurred, the paper sought to blanket coverage of anything related to either the crash or the production online. It also offers some 400 photos, including shots of NFL stars and Marshall alums Randy Moss, Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich in their college playing days.
“It has a lot of video, interviews and thoughts from those who have lived through the time since,” Dawkins said. Online readers can even see a copy of the federal investigation report into the crash, as well as a transcript of the final cockpit recordings.
Along with the April special section — a magazine-style publication that ran 76 pages — the Herald-Dispatch also printed a 64-page supplement on Dec. 10 and has a 32-page section ready for Friday, Dec. 22, when the film opens nationally.
In addition, a commemorative 102-page book about the crash has been produced and is selling on the Web site. Editors plan to donate a percentage of the book’s profits to a Marshall scholarship fund named for a former member of the 1970 team.
“It focuses on the ’70 and ’71 seasons,” said Dawson. “We had done a book about seven or eight years ago, it kind of looked at the crash events and the rise of the football program since then. This one is more on the actual events of the story.”
The editor added that nearly all of his 36 newsroom staffers had been involved in some element of the coverage.
Dawson says the movie has drawn some negative feelings from local residents who had sought to put the incident behind them, but believed most appreciated that those who died would continue to be remembered. “There are people who are so close to the story that they are not going to see the movie,” he said. “But there has been no opposition” to the paper’s approach.