Colorado paper at center of massacre story

Sep 11, 2012

By Stanley Schwartz
Managing Editor | Publishers’ Auxiliary
AURORA, CO—A calm evening in late July erupted into chaos when a young man entered a movie theater here and started shooting, killing 12 and wounding nearly 60.
Across the street in the Aurora Sentinel office, things were quiet. Within moments of learning of the shooting, said Editor Dave Perry, the staff of the small paper was alerted and they were on their way in for their assignments.
“We have a staff of four editorial people and one photographer,” Perry said. The Sentinel, which had been a daily print newspaper until about 18 months ago, switched to a weekly print cycle and brought its digital presence to the forefront.
Perry said that he had been gearing up for the weekly’s weekend print distribution when he learned about shots being fired at the Century movie theater, and he knew it wasn’t a typical shooting. The 16-theater movie complex sits on the back end of a regional shopping mall. He realized his people would have to move fast to stay on top of the evolving story. Aurora, a city of about 300,000,  borders the city limits of Denver.
“For one,” he explained, “there were two sites that needed covering—the movie theater and an apartment building about three to four miles away from here.” The amount of carnage had local authorities scrambling to deal with the shooting victims and the family members who came rushing to the area, desperate for news about their loved ones.
Unlike the 1999 Columbine High School shooting that lasted for hours, Perry said the attack at the midnight screening of the most recent Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises,” was over quickly, and the man police believed responsible for the massacre, John Homes, a 24-year-old university graduate student, was in custody.
“There were so many people affected,” Perry said about the victims. “Dozens were unaccounted for.” He and his staff tapped into social media, searching for information on those directly affected.
News of the shootings spread quickly, Perry said. The newspaper has more than 2,000 followers on its Facebook page. It wasn’t long before the newspaper was able to start posting names on its website of those killed during the attack.
Perry said the newspaper has a working relationship with the local ABC TV affiliate and could share its sources and information. But it wasn’t long before national and international media began calling the newspaper, seeking information on the shooting.
“They were unfamiliar with the lay of the land,” Perry added, “and they zeroed in on our phone line. I was inundated with people just trying to do their jobs.” Most of the calls were coming from radio stations, he noted.
The theater where the shooting took place held between 200 and 300 people. The whole complex can hold up to 1,300 people. Police shut down the building and the adjacent mall while they investigated the crime scene. Perry, who has been with the Sentinel for 20 years and editor for the last 15 years, said the mall was allowed to open the next day. The theater complex, however, remained closed.
The American Red Cross set up an aid station at a local high school to help deal with the family and friends of the victims. Perry sent one of his reporters to the site to check out what was going on.
Sara Castellanos said the scene at the high school was pure chaos. She had gone to the theater first and then the high school.
“People were freaking out and crying,” she added. Officials had asked that only those who were actual victims or family members of victims go to the high school to receive support.
“It was manned by Red Cross volunteers, providing mental health support and water and food,” Castellanos said. While there, she saw a man come careening into the parking lot and jump out of his van holding a photocopy of a photo, begging for information on his son’s whereabouts.
“The media swarmed him.” She learned later that one of the dead had been the man’s son.
Castellanos, who graduated from college in 2009, has been with the paper for three years. She attempted approaching some of the people present.
“Many of them were crying and I didn’t want to be too intrusive,” she said. “It felt like I was in war zone at that point. I’ve never experienced anything like this before. It was by far the worst event I’ve ever had to cover.”
Back at the paper, Perry said it was eerily quite in the newsroom. He and his staff were working frantically trying to sift through all the information they could and provide the most accurate list of names of those killed.
“I have a top-notch team,” he said. “We had been a daily and switched to a digital daily.” That put his newspaper in a strong position to provide information in real time. Everyone on staff blogs, so it was natural for them to stop at certain points during their coverage and blog about how they felt.
Even though the paper doesn’t have a written policy on how to deal with victims of crimes, Perry said, he stresses to them the need to be sensitive and kind to those who have been affected. But in the end, it was the family members who responded to the paper’s Facebook postings, asking for information on the victims.
“They came to us,” Perry said. Feedback on the paper’s coverage has been positive, he noted.
For his small staff, the story became extremely time consuming because so many people were affected by the shooting, and in the aftermath, they had to deal with a gag order, preventing the paper from publishing certain information pertaining to Holmes.
The paper set up a separate pull down menu on its website to handle all the information from this story. Perry said he and his staff would continue to cover all aspects of the story.
“It will probably be at least a year before there is even a trial,” he said.
Castellanos, the paper’s city council reporter, said it will be good to get back to her own beat.
“I didn’t know the names of the victims at first,” she said. But after covering the story for several weeks, she now feels as though she knows them as the people they had been before they were killed.