Covering a Tragedy

It was 5 a.m. the day after a gunman shot and killed five students at Northern Illinois University, and like so many other reporters that morning, I found myself on an hour-long drive to yet another grieving college campus. I was chasing the same story as all the global news outlets with big cameras and pretty anchors with hair and make-up teams, but I soon discovered that those quaffed reporters weren't any closer to the story than I had been back in Chicago. The ones that were really caught up in the story -- both in terms of being the first on the scene and dealing with the aftermath of the tragedy -- were the student reporters at NIU's student newspaper, The Northern Star.

As Brian Stelter (who himself is only about a year out of college) noted in this morning's New York Times, being first on the scene had its advantages and challenges, but the staff of The Northern Star performed impressively, as their constantly updated website has served as a lifeline to concerned NIU parents, students, and outside journalists. Indeed, situated about a mile away from the lights and camera crews, the Northern Star offices proved instantly to be ground zero for anything and everything NIU. And at 7:30 a.m., I was the only person there.

It was clear that the focus of my story would be how the staff of The Northern Star pulled double-duty as journalists covering a developing story, but also as students who'd lost friends and colleagues in a seemingly random act of violence. It wasn't long before I met Justin Smith, an NIU senior and The Northern Star's online editor, as he unlocked the door to the newspaper office. He'd already sipped half of his frappuccino and was toting about five of this morning's national newspapers, all of them headlining the events of the previous day. He led me to his computer; we chatted for a bit, and he checked his Blackberry every 30 seconds for updates. Like many of his fellow staff members, he hadn't slept all night.

At 9 a.m., I shadowed The Northern Star's editor-in-chief, John Puterbaugh, and a few other staffers to the investigators' morning press conference. When a reporter from the mainstream media asked, "Was he [the shooter] a jilted lover who wanted to carry this out on Valentine's Day?" I turned to Smith and Puterbaugh, sitting beside me, as they just smiled in awe of such a profound query. Puterbaugh let out a sigh: "Ask real questions," he said under his breath.

Although they didn't ask a single question at the press conference, The Northern Star churned out stories throughout the day that put mainstream news outlets to shame. And eventually, by the start of the afternoon, I had some company: At the Northern Star office, I heard a producer from The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer pitching his idea for a story "about how the students at the newspaper are covering their own tragedy." That, of course, affirmed what I already knew: that the staff of The Northern Star were themselves creating the news that day.

As I wrapped up my time with the Northern Star, I asked Puterbaugh about what he hoped to accomplish at the end of this ordeal. "Maybe we can provide closure," he said. "Maybe we can memorialize, maybe we can send a message of how important it is to stay together right now, as a family at NIU. But I guess we're figuring that out as we go."

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