From the outset, the big Dallas paper—owned by A. H. Belo Corp., a 2008-spin-off from Belo Corp.—had advantages.
Serving the country’s ninth largest city, and with a newsroom still numbering in the hundreds, the Morning News was the closest big news organization to the explosion. It had expertise ranging from a computer-assisted reporting team to an environmental writer to editors experienced with crashes, explosions, and investigations. And while the paper moved fast—breaking more accurate stories than anyone—it moved deliberately.
“I guess,” says editor Bob Mong, “we’ve been conservatively aggressive.”
The paper began searching regulatory records in the first few hours after the explosion, uncovering the company’s EPA report about its anhydrous ammonia—an early indicator of the paper’s ability to get hard information fast but to treat it carefully. It maintained two reporters in West to follow the story, even as investigators revealed very little, while a larger team back in Dallas filed open records requests and mapped out for readers 44 other locations in Texas where potentially dangerous fertilizers are stored. The paper also sketched out the patchwork of agencies that have responsibility in incidents like these, making investigations—and reporting on them—that much more complicated. And rather than jumping to argue for new rules, in that same piece the Morning News pointed out that existing rules were not being enforced. From Washington to West, wrote environmental writer Randy Lee Loftis, “the system broke down.”
Loftis was given carte blanche to cover the range of possible causes, from oversight failure to regulatory shortcomings to even simple fire prevention measures the company itself might have taken to prevent or at least mitigate the disaster, like installing a sprinkler system and paying for a $200 fire inspection—but only after confirming that the company had not installed such a system.
Loftis even analyzed imagery from the scene with former professional investigators to explore the possibility not just that the ammonium nitrate had exploded, but that it may have been aided by the mixing of fuel with the fertilizer pellets—a common and dangerous explosive, and one scenario in which the West explosion might have been a crime.
Throughout, the paper provided a rich mix of coverage, often ahead of the pack. The Morning News broke the story of a new criminal investigation by the Texas Rangers and the arrest—of as-yet unclear significance—of a paramedic charged with possessing a pipe bomb. Meanwhile, the editorial page criticized the state for a lack of transparency in providing records of chemicals at sites around the state; it also chided local, state, and federal officials for passing the buck over who had enforcement responsibilities, including what it labeled as the town’s poor evacuation planning. Editorial writer Todd Robberson called for more diligent zoning and more regulation. In the context of careful and wide-ranging reporting, these editorials and columns added to the mix of coverage rather than defining it.
Elsewhere in Texas, the Dallas CBS affiliate reported on April 22 that state officials had visited and inspected the West fertilizer facility frequently, as often as 10 times a year, even at the summoning of the plant manager and the affiliate, and established that the reports of an extraordinary amount of ammonium nitrate on the site were not accurate. The Waco Tribune-Herald, a far smaller paper, was deft on breaking news, particularly on and about the first horrific night, and provided fast updates via Twitter as investigators released their results last week. The paper also published on May 21 a fascinating op-ed by an academic explaining how ammonium nitrate really works, how common sense practices have largely kept the fertilizer from exploding since the Texas City disaster—until now, there has been just one accidental ammonium nitrate explosion explosion at a fertilizer plant in this country since then, an accident in Iowa 20 years ago—and how crime was still a possibility.
Even as investigators released their preliminary conclusions in West last week, more investigations are underway. The federal Chemical Safety Board—notorious for being overworked and slow—will start its own probe, while probes by other state and federal agencies, including the ATF and the Texas Rangers, continue. These investigations deserve sustained, aggressive, careful coverage—reporting and commentary that pushes authorities to identify the responsible parties and take reasonable steps to prevent future tragedies, but does not jump to conclusions.
Of course, it seems more likely that West will now fade from view, and it also seems possible that we’ll never know exactly what caused the blast. It’s tempting, of course, to wish for a clear-cut conclusion to such a terrible event. I asked Mong, of the Morning News, if he had a hunch. He paused for a bit but didn’t take the bait, saying only, “I think it’s still a big mystery.”