It’s not often that The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, takes an all-hands-on-deck approach to a national story rooted in a city nearly 550 miles away. But it happened this week.
A large rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly on Saturday, when a man in a Dodge Challenger drove into a crowd of counter-protesters. One woman was killed, and at least 19 others were injured. Back at the historic Blade building in Toledo, a sharp-eyed copyeditor named Tommy Gallagher, who also helps out on the photo desk, was looking at early images from Charlottesville and readying them for publication. What he saw stopped him short. Not only did the car that drove through the crowd in Virginia have an Ohio license plate, but, Gallagher noticed after blowing up the image, the registration tag bore the number “48.” That meant it was registered in Lucas County, where Toledo is the county seat.
Gallagher alerted the Web desk. There weren’t many staffers in the newsroom—it was a sleepy weekend shift—but reporters were pulled in for overtime, including one who left an out-of-town bachelor’s party to make an abrupt road trip to Virginia. The Blade soon had original coverage not only from Toledo, where it scored a much-cited interview with the driver’s mother, but also from Charlottesville, Bowling Green, Ohio, and Florence, Kentucky, where the driver grew up. Local reporting proved essential to the burgeoning national narrative, and the Blade was also able to bring a big, multi-faceted story to local readers.
But first, they had to figure out who the driver was. “I put three reporters on it immediately, and they were searching everywhere,” says Dave Murray, the Blade’s managing editor. Through voter and vehicle registration records, he says, the Blade found that the car was registered in the name of James Fields, Jr., with an address in Maumee, a southern suburb of Toledo.
Hours before police announced Fields’s arrest and released his mugshot, Lauren Lindstrom, ordinarily a health reporter, was in Maumee to knock on doors. She felt cautious about misidentifying the driver—there had already been at least one social media-fed misidentification, and she was alert to the fact that the vehicle being registered in Fields’s name didn’t necessarily mean that he’d driven it. She wondered if there would be a police presence around Fields’s address, but there wasn’t. But her questions to neighbors on the small cul-de-sac where the car was registered didn’t bring much clarity.
Lindstrom was ready return to the newsroom when she saw the garage door open at the address she believed was Fields’s. Alongside reporters from the Associated Press and Advance Digital, Inc., she hurried over to a woman who was getting out of a car. The woman turned out to be Fields’s mother, returning home from dinner. It quickly became clear that she hadn’t heard about the events in Charlottesville.
“It’s very weird,” Lindstrom says. “For anyone who’s covered victims’ families, tragedy victims, or [people connected to] perpetrators, you’re almost [never] the first person to get to them. It puts you in a very unusual position.”
The tearful interview was brief, but revealing. Besides confirming Fields’s presence in Charlottesville, it also provided critical details: that he and his mother had moved to Maumee from northern Kentucky, that Fields had recently moved to his own apartment nearby, and that the police had not yet contacted Fields’s mother. This is also the only interview on record with Fields’s mother, who quickly excused herself and subsequently stopped talking with media altogether. A sheriff’s deputy is now stationed outside her house to keep all visitors at a distance, Lindstrom says.
The Blade interview has been widely cited by national news outlets, bolstered by video Lindstrom captured on her cell phone. It gave a human face to the accused’s side of a grim breaking news story. “I think it shows the benefit of local news,” Lindstrom says. “We’re the hometown paper, and we were the ones on the ground. We were able to get there quickly.”
The Toledo team didn’t leave it at that. “Before midnight, a senior editor and I talked by phone and I said, ‘I want someone in Charlottesville,’” Murray says. After learning from Fields’s mother that they had only lived in Ohio for a year, he also wanted to send someone to Fields’s hometown in Kentucky.
That led to a second revealing interview by crime reporter Allison Reamer, which has also been widely credited in the national press. Reamer spoke to Fields’s high school social studies teacher, who described how Fields developed Nazi sympathies as a student. “It was never aggressive, it was never a threatening situation,” the teacher told Reamer in an interview that was also captured on video. “As much as I could, I tried to counter his views. I tried to relate historical situations to the current world that we live in.” When he learned of the charges against Fields, his first feeling, he told Reamer, was “I failed, we failed.”
On Monday, Reamer also reported that Fields’s mother had repeatedly called Kentucky law enforcement for help with her son’s violent episodes. In one instance, she locked herself in the bathroom to get away from him.
Ryan Dunn, the Blade crime reporter who went to Charlottesville, heard about the breaking news while at a weekend-long bachelor’s party near Athens, Ohio. Dunn got a call at about 10:30 pm Saturday, asking if he could drive to Virginia early the next morning. He said yes. “It was just clear. I was more taken by surprise, pleasantly so, that we were going to be so involved in covering this.” Dunn’s friends laid out a makeshift bed of pillows for him on the floor of a side room, where he tried to catch some sleep before making the long drive.
By early the next day, he was in Charlottesville, doing spot interviews, and collecting photo and video. Leaving from Athens, rather than Toledo, “cut about three hours off his traveling time,” Murray says. “We got a couple lucky breaks.”
Figuring that much of the granular aftermath of the incident would be well covered by other reporters in Charlottesville, Dunn felt free to take a more feature-oriented approach, and to fill his Twitter feed with what he was seeing and hearing on the ground.
“I suppose it just reinforces to me that there is a strong local angle to pretty much every national story,” Dunn says. “I was really happy see datelines in the Blade… and know that they are not just a rewritten brief or wire story, but that they represent reporters who were [actually] there.”
Locally, the Blade spread out. It usually has one reporter in the newsroom on Sundays; this Sunday, it had four, with the city editor coordinating coverage. One reporter, Nolan Rosenkrans, reported from a nearby rally in support of Charlottesville. Another, Jennifer Feehan, wrote about the FBI interviewing Fields’s mother and how the “Toledo area [is] no stranger to KKK, Nazi rallies.” Murray was checking in, as was Editor in Chief and Publisher John Block, who was on his way back from a vacation in Nantucket. There were more local dispatches on Monday, including news that Fields, who had been living in a Toledo apartment complex since April, had been fired from his job as a private security guard in the wake of the Charlottesville charges. The Blade’s editorial page also weighed in, reflecting on “what made James Fields possible?”
“We are a newspaper known for our local and breaking news coverage, and we’re ready to jump on a big story if there’s a local angle,” Murray says, adding with a laugh: “I hope there’s no big police news in Toledo right now because both our police reporters are gone, in Charlottesville and Kentucky.”
Lindstrom and Murray both credited the Blade’s track record of fine breaking news coverage to a team that works well together. Editors and reporters were “in communication almost constantly,” Lindstrom says. “‘Did you see this?’ and ‘Can I help you file a FOIA remotely because you’re on a phone and I have a laptop?’ and ‘Can I relay something to an editor?’”
“It’s probably harder to do this now than 10 years ago,” because the paper has a smaller staff, she adds. “But when we suddenly realized this would be a national story with wall-to-wall coverage, we were able to have a piece of that and take ownership over it.”
Murray echoes that. “This just reconfirms for me that if news happens, we have to jump on it and jump on it quick. Don’t hold back, and if it takes us out of the area, go. Go where the news is. There’s no reason we can’t get in a car and cover a big story that has an impact on readers here.”www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark.