Covering the catastrophe p. 15

By: Gypsy Hogan How the Daily Oklahoman covered the federal building bombing in its own backyard sp.

WHEN THE BOMB went off April 19 in Oklahoma City, the Daily Oklahoman had two reporters in buildings across the street and a staff artist was just two blocks away, having just dropped his son at the daycare center across from the explosion site.
While they all survived, pressman Ronnie Fields lost his wife in the explosion. Carroll June "Chip" Fields, 48, worked for the Drug Enforcement Agency.
"If there is one image I will take from the events of April 19 and beyond, it is that of journalists in this department wiping away tears and clearing their throats, then pushing forth to report, write, photograph, edit and create," said managing editor Ed Kelley in a May 10 staff letter.
Create they did.
The newspaper, the state's largest, produced extra six-page sections for the next five days, four-page extras for 10 days after that, with a tapering down continuing for the next four weeks.
To meet demand, the presses cranked out 100,000 papers for street sales ? twice as many as normal ? for the day after. It wasn't enough, so 112,000 were produced for Day 2 after the bombing. Four weeks later, the paper still was producing about 7,000 extra.
Counselors were brought in to help the shaken; lunches and dinners were brought in to help meet the crunch.
"I never sensed any panic, very little anger or shouting with each other, despite the fact that the collective grief of this city and state certainly found its way into the newsroom," Kelley said.
A number of specific policies and decisions evolved over the following days, Kelley said.
? It was mandated that the bombing would never be referred to as an "incident."
? There was a relaxing of policy on profanity ? "We allowed a few more four-letter words in the paper to reflect the anger people had."
? Funerals were not covered. "We decided they were too predictable ? preachers preach and people cry." The families would be given their privacy, and the paper would tell the story in better ways.
? Photographs and artwork were given big play in the typically conservative format. "I'm not sure we will ever look at a good photograph or art work quite the same," Kelley said, not going so far as to say a new format has been found.
? Two extra news planning conferences a day were thrown into the schedule. Bomb coverage was divided into issues rather than following traditional desk assignments. "Reporters found themselves reporting to several editors, depending on what was in their notebook," rather than the traditional federal beat going through city desk.
? Artists produced final graphics on computer, but were also sent downtown with sketch books in hand, an effort Kelley believes paid off.
? Families of those killed were allowed to run classified obituaries free of charge. Classified worked with the newsroom to get permission from the families to run photos of the deceased on the news side, as well as with the obituary. They also helped get family phone numbers for reporters to call.
One of the best decisions, Kelley believes, was to make one person responsible for the injured, missing and casualty lists. A reporter who had worked city desk, covered cops and worked with the coroner's office was selected for what became a nonstop, almost four-week job.
"Nothing was going to be more news in this thing than who got hurt, killed or was missing," Kelley said.
Two other major lists emerged ? where to get help, and where to help.
The newspaper utilized its audiotex service. giving callers access to the lists and other coverage highlights. Lines were set up for people to call in and talk about the bombing; to hear people sing and recite poetry they wrote about the disaster. More than 20,000 extra calls were fielded.
For the first time, the newspaper plugged information into Internet Oklahoma. The information drew about 2,500 hits a day.
Within minutes after the bombing, publications across the country began calling the newspaper for photographs, said Kelley. After meeting Associated Press obligations, an exclusive agency agreement was soon arranged with the New York agency SABA Press Photos, bringing welcomed telephone relief.
Overall, Kelley believes the staff was able to do the job it did because of and in spite of their closeness to the situation.
"Virtually everyone working full time on this staff . . . either grew up in Oklahoma City, went to college in Oklahoma, has lived here a long time or all three," he said. "I think it really paid great dividends" that they knew the city, the officials and the people.
Median staff age is about 41, with median length of service being 11 years, he noted.
In the midst of it all came a newsroom "care package" from fellow journalists, staffers at the Rockford (Ill.) Register Star. An accompanying letter explained their concern for those working at the paper, and their hopes that the enclosed snack food would be a token of their empathy.
Some of those at the Oklahoman wondered "whether the burden of reporting the details of this crime to satisfy the desires of a reading public truly was trafficking in the misery of the victims' families," Kelley acknowledged in a staff letter.
"But I would submit to you, and anyone else, that responsible newspapering is a noble craft, and never more noble than in times of great tragedy . . . . You are among 170 or so people in a metropolitan area of 1 million who could, in depth, make sense of what happened, and why, and explain what lies ahead," he wrote.
?(Daily Oklahoman) [Photo]
?(Staffers at the Oklohoman partake of the "care package" from sympathetic journalists at the Rockford (Il.) Register Star. The staffers collected snack food and shipped it to their counterparts in Oklahoma City in a gesture of understanding and support following the April 19 bombing there.) [Photo & Caption]


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