40 Years Later, 'Lawrence Journal-World' and Nebraska J-Students Look Back at 'In Cold Blood'

By: Graham Webster A four-day series marking the 40th anniversary of Truman Capote's classic account of the murders of a Kansas farm family, "In Cold Blood" -- the "nonfiction novel" that made him famous -- wrapped up in today's Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World.

It's an impressive recounting of a major west Kansas event, 15 pages of reporting and a 30-minute documentary airing on the paper's cable station. And even more notable is that no one involved in producing the project is even close to 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 murder of the Clutter family, which fueled Capote's book, the students convinced some of the major figures in the case to talk for the first time. And, notably, they convinced a newspaper to run their work, virtually unedited.

"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," Ralph Gage, the Journal-World's chief operating officer, told E&P. "He was enthusiastic about giving our readers something special that they couldn't get anywhere else."

What resulted were seven pages in Sunday's edition, kicking off at least seven more pages over the beginning of this week.

At the Journal-World, which, like any other paper, publishes series from time to time, the size of this package is unprecedented. "I can't remember anything quite this massive," Gage said.

The reporting came out of a University of Nebraska class known as "Depth Reporting," which in is offered at least once every semester. Recent projects have sent students to France to report on U.S.-French relations, explored America's obesity problem, and remembered Custer's Last Stand, editing instructor Jerry Sass told E&P.

The idea to take on "In Cold Blood" came to the j-school's dean, Will Norton, "somewhere on some lonely highway," Sass said.

Last spring, the instructors began assembling their team for the year-long course.

"They gathered up a group of eight or nine students last year, and we started doing some background research and reading the book, obviously, last spring," said Melissa Lee, who worked on the project and is currently editor-in-chief of The Daily Nebraskan.
While a few initial students read and re-read Capote's version of events, Sass and Susan Gage, who teaches reporting at the j-school, went to Kansas to start some of their own research.

"Still, going into that class last fall, we thought there was a good solid chance we would come up with nothing," Sass said. "The students we ended up with were sort of the cream of the crop here, I think, in a lot of ways. We have a lot of good students and they work their butts off."

Ultimately, of course, the student reporters came up with a lot -- including the first interviews ever given by several key players in the story.

Sass said putting a young face in front of people who don't usually talk to the media might have helped open doors.

"I do think that there's something about students anywhere -- that they're fresh and they're disarming in many ways -- and I do think that people do tend to be a little more open to them," he said.

Plus, they discovered one way to grease the wheels when heading up the front steps of someone's home for a difficult interview. "It helps if you bring a pie," Sass noted.

A dozen student reporters traveled repeatedly to Kansas during the fall, and in January, five student editors and page designers took over, producing readymade 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," Sass said. 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 said, only 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 said. "They didn't look at it after we were done."

"I don't know of any place that's done anything like that," he said.

This might not be the last time the Journal-World, which has an ongoing relationship with the University of Kansas j-school, works with students on something like this.

"We're actually intrigued by the possibility of doing similar things in the future," Ralph Gage said. "We'll see what develops, but I think the success of this one should encourage others to try something similar."


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