I reconnected with Eric Deutsch after finding out it had been 20 years since we found ourselves together covering “The bus fire” in Madison. We agreed that it remains one of the more difficult stories we found ourselves covering.
So why would I relive this thing here, let alone every year in class? It’s not about trying to gross out students or because of the shock value. I can still pin down four things that I picked up that day that informed my life as a journalist and I still teach to students as an educator. I’m sure that there are more things, but these are the big ones:
Do the job first, figure out the rest of it later: I have told many students that a panicking reporter is a useless reporter, and I learned that lesson that day. Even before the fire, I had seen things that would make a Billy Goat puke, but this was different. In most cases, the crime or the accident or whatever had finished being the crime or the accident by the time I got there. This time, people were still suffering, bodies were laying around, the guy was still out there and I had literally no idea what the hell I was supposed to do.
To figure out what to do, I just focused on the job: Talk to people, write stuff down, fill in holes, keep up to date, make note of everything I saw/heard/smelled… When I boiled it down to the most basic things, I saw myself as a conduit of content from the sources to the readers. I didn’t complicate things any more than that. If I stopped to think about it in any other way, I probably would have started freaking out.
I didn’t realize that this idea passed from me to others until years later when a former student reached out to me. She explained that the biggest takeaway she had in her time as a student reporter for me was when she had a really rough phone interview while reporting on an obituary. She was on the border of tears and she didn’t think she could handle it. I apparently took her into my office and told her that I understood that it was rough, but we had a job to do. “Finish the story and cry later,” I apparently told her.
I remember none of that, but she said it made a difference in her life as a media professional. The idea of “Do the work and then fall apart afterward” allowed her to compartmentalize her feelings on a topic and get stuff done in the face of really difficult circumstances.
It’s a good lesson and I learned it at that fire.
Faith and trust make a difference: I tell students that when they weigh job offers, they should consider the quality of the person to whom they will directly report. I have worked for people I would step in front of a bus for and others I wish would have stepped in front of a bus for all our sake. When it comes down to it, if you have a good boss, that’s going to make a difference between you succeeding and you failing when the chips are down.
I can recall two specific cases in my life where that happened: In 2000, I was running the night city desk at the Columbia Missourian when we got a report that a plane had crashed and the governor was rumored to be dead. As this moved from rumor to a virtual certainty, my boss, George Kennedy, called and said, “So, I guess you’re having an interesting night…”
I outlined everything I had done and everything we were doing to get this figured out. I believed I had a good handle on this, but George Kennedy was on the other end of the line and I needed to be sure. I was 26 with about two years of editing experience. He was the guy who wrote the textbook I learned from at age 19 and taught from since age 23. He was the gold standard, no way around it. Thus, I asked, “So are you coming in?” figuring he’d want to ride over the top on this one and make sure I wasn’t committing a disastrous failure of epic proportion. His answer stunned me:
“Why? I’ve got you.” He hung up.
At that point, I wasn’t going to let him down. And I didn’t.
The first time, however, was this bus fire. Teryl Franklin was my editor and she knew this had to be done right. It wasn’t necessarily clear at that point if I would do it right. She had other options, including a guy with almost a decade of experience with whom she worked closely throughout her career. She had a newsroom vet with almost 40 years of experience at the ready as well. Once she figured out this wasn’t an engine failure, nothing said she had to keep me on that story. I was the worst possible option from an “on-paper” perspective. Hell, I would have pulled me out of there at that point if I were her.
Instead, she kept the other two guys in the office, working the phones to pick up stuff to augment my reporting. She also trusted every fact I gathered and every statement I told her I checked. She pressed the hell out of me to make sure, but when I said I was sure, she backed me up.
From that day forward, I realized how important that had been to my development. I also realized the power of having someone put faith in me. When I became an editor and later an adviser, I stuck with that philosophy. I coached, I prodded and I pushed, but I always told the reporters, “You got this. You’re the right person for this job. Go get it.”
Work the problem: The first thing people wanted to know once police had Salim Amara under arrest was who he was. The police were telling us all sorts of things, but the name of the suspect wasn’t one of them, so we had to figure out a different way to get this information. This was one of the benefits of having multiple agencies working from different sets of information that all told us one or two crucial things.
I forget who gave us what, but we had information from the hospital, the police, the fire department and Madison Metro. One of them gave us all the names of the victims, but nothing else. One gave us the ages of the victims but nothing else. One gave us the ages and the conditions of the victims. One gave us the information that a 20-year-old man had been arrested in connection with the attack.
With no internet as we know it now, we started digging through phone books, old stories and more to try to match up people and conditions and ages and names. We made an educated guess that the person hurt least was the person who knew what was coming. We also were able to eliminate the women, leaving us with fewer potential candidates. I had narrowed this down to two people and I took an educated guess as to which guy it was. I then called the jail and asked if Salim Amara was being booked for anything. The jail, having no idea what was going on with all this, confirmed he was set to be booked. Better yet, they had a mug shot from a recent arrest if I wanted it, which I obviously did.
Still, we didn’t know for SURE that this guy was the fire starter and it was one of those moments where luck played a big role. I got a call at my desk from some big wig in the police department. I’d left a message asking for some additional info, so I figured that’s why he called back. I started asking questions, but he immediately interrupted me:
“That’s not why I’m calling,” he said. “I understand that you have a mug shot of our suspect and that’s a problem…”
Sounds like confirmation to me.
He then ended up on the phone for at least five minutes with Teryl arguing about whether we were being irresponsible in running his name and photo. The officer argued that all the victims hadn’t picked this guy out of a line up yet, so we could be tainting the investigation. She argued that we were one of many who were going to run this thing and that holding onto this information with the hopes of people recovering in a few months to then ID the guy made little sense. Either way, the photo and the name were running. We ended up breaking that news and we were the first to tell people about his previous run-ins with the law as well.
The point is, work the problem. Sure, it would be great if people just told you everything, but in most cases, that’s not going to happen. You have to improvise, adapt and overcome if you want to end up with a decent story. Don’t quit on a problem because it seems like you’re getting stonewalled. Use your brain and figure out how to get what you want.
Focus on the candy: I borrowed this line from “South Park,” to describe the idea of keeping your head on straight and paying attention to what really matters. When I went into that press briefing, I really wanted to know what the transit authorities had to say about bus safety and the future of transit over the next few days. It seemed to me to be a no-brainer, which is why I was stunned when Guy Smiley decided to make a big deal out of a bucket. I have no idea what he was thinking about or why it mattered, but his attention to it had me half thinking, “What am I missing here?”
Still, I wanted to know about the bus stuff, regardless of if I was being “bucket scooped” or not, so I hung in there until I could ask a question of value to my readers. In the end, the answer I got turned out to be the best part of both the main bar and the side bar of the story.
No matter what else is going on at a story, figure out what you think your readers would most want to know and stick to it. Keep your focus on the candy and you’ll nail the story. Get all “bucket distracted” and you’ll miss a lot.
One last thing: I asked Deutsch, who covered the fire for WTDY Radio, if he had any “lessons learned” he picked up from this situation. Here’s what he had to say:
“It’s better to follow up on something and it turns out to be nothing, than to not follow up and miss out. If my news director hadn’t called me back and I had to make the decision myself, I might not have gone to the site because the pager info was so vague that it didn’t seem like a story worthy of checking on on a Sunday night.”
Great advice from a great pro.