Saturday’s shooting in Tucson was something of a marathon challenge for The Arizona Republic’s staff of 310. For starters, the Phoenix-based paper had no bureau in Tucson. Then there was the confusion over whether Congresswoman Giffords had survived the attack, the task of tracking down everything they could on her suspected shooter, and trying to do it all more quickly, and more accurately, than a rushing horde of national outlets and the usual hometown competition. Republic editor and vice president Randy Lovely spoke to CJR assistant editor Joel Meares about the task of breaking news that seemed to be constantly changing and, in the days that followed, sensitively directing his paper’s coverage of one of the biggest and most contentious stories to hit his state in years. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
What was the newsroom like when news broke on Saturday that the Congresswoman and others had been shot?
I have to admit it was a little chaotic. Obviously, Saturday staffing is not at its height but the good thing was that the phone tree we have in place for disaster coverage kicked in and everybody started calling through the chain of their responsibilities. We had reporters and editors quickly coming into the newsroom and at the same time reporters and photographers who immediately were on the road headed toward Tucson. We do not have a bureau in Tucson so we had to have people deployed as quickly as we could.
That must have presented a challenge—no bureau in the city.
We’ve had bureaus at the border but not in Tucson. Part of the problem is that until a couple of years ago Gannett owned The Tucson Citizen, so we always had a collaborative relationship with them. But we have worked very closely with the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, and as of Monday we set up a temporary bureau in their building so that we can keep staff down there for the foreseeable future. They set aside some space for us—obviously, a little away from their newsroom because we’re still competitors of sorts. At least until we get a better feel for how this story settles in, and until we have a better sense of the congresswoman’s condition develops, we wanted to make sure we had a steady presence down there.
It’s always an interesting challenge when you’re covering a market that is considered to be local but really isn’t local. The logistics of having to deal with hotel rooms and getting equipment down to people, and even getting clothes down to people who left in such a hurry that they didn’t think about the fact that they might be gone for a few days. It just adds another wrinkle to the whole thing.
What does working very closely with the Daily Star entail? Are you sharing content?
Not really. We have shared information about deployment, about where people are, and tips, but not actual finished product.
There was a lot of confusion and misreporting when the news of the shooting first broke—outlets reporting that the congresswoman had been killed, for example. Where was your team getting your information from and how do you handle the balance between breaking news and ensuring it’s accurate in a situation like this?
I don’t want to stand in judgment, because I know the kind of frenzy that was going on within our newsroom. As we were trying to get ourselves up and running, and getting people in the right places, and making all the right phone calls, we were also monitoring the wires and monitoring national broadcasters and the like. I can understand the frenzy of it all and I can understand the competitiveness that drives us all. But at the same time it was a little disconcerting to see statements being made without knowing where that confirmation was coming from. For us, there were contradictions that we were seeing, which caused us to be even more hesitant. We were trying to be as fast as we could be but as accurate as we could be.