School shooting brings world’s focus to CT

Feb 1, 2013

Staff of weekly works
to deliver accurate
information to local readers and the world.

By Stanley Schwartz
Managing Editor | Publishers’ Auxiliary
NEWTOWN, CT— On Dec. 14, John Voket, associate editor for the Newtown Bee, was beginning to enjoy a day off after helping to put out that week’s issue the day before. Fifteen miles away at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Adam Lanza was just starting his killing spree; one that would leave 28 dead, 20 of them first graders.
Not knowing the extent of the situation, the Bee’s other associate editor, Shannon Hicks, called Voket to ask if he planned to be in that day.
“She is a firefighter, too,” he said, “(in addition to her duties as an editor at the weekly) and she told me there had been a shots-fired call from the school, and there was a foot injury being treated.” Hicks, on her way to the school, told Voket she would call him with more information. The firehouse shares a driveway with the elementary school.
“I thought someone had probably brought a gun to school and dropped it, hitting someone in the foot or something,” he said. “Oh, how I wish that had been the case.” Even though he didn’t know how bad the situation was, Voket was compelled to go in. Within five minutes, he was on his way. Five minutes after that he was notified that regional emergency dispatchers were calling for additional medical units—from numerous communities closest to Newtown. They needed a mobile medical crisis intervention team on site.
Voket said he picked up his speed and was doing 80 mph on the interstate when two state police cars blew by him like he was standing still. At the exit to Newtown, he started seeing ambulances arriving from other jurisdictions.
Twenty-five minutes after the first call, Voket was on the scene. He was in contact with the fire department supervisor. He stationed himself at a secondary triage area, still believing it was just a panic situation because there was only one person being treated, and she was getting blood washed off.
“It was then I learned that they were preparing for 30 to 60 gunshot victims,” he said. Still hoping for the best, Voket asked about the severity of the shooting victims. “I was told it could be that many DOA.
“Then my world collapsed,” he said.
Looking for someone to identify with, Voket said he met up with Hicks. She was being activated in her firefighter capacity and asked him to take over the reporting duties. The paper’s editor, Curtiss Clark, called Voket to see how soon could he return with a report about what was going on. Hicks had already sent a photo memory card back to the paper with a reporter. Given the enormity of carnage, Voket knew he would be there for a quite a while. Hicks, he added, had kept her head and took photos as she approached the school grounds. The photo of police leading a line of children away from the scene became the lead photo on a special section. It was also sent out by The Associated Press.

Inside the lines
Voket was inside the secure area when the police started to tape it off.
“I have a close relationship with local and state authorities,” he said. “Some said they wanted me to stay as an observer.” But, Voket was warned not to use a camera or a notebook, because if someone saw him with them he could be sent outside the line to where the other media were stationed. “They wanted someone from the journalistic profession to observe and chronicle what happened from a historical perspective; someone local who could do it with the proper sensitivity.”
There was a lot of misinformation flying around in those first few hours, he said. People were talking about the possibility of a second shooter or even a third shooter. In addition to Lanza killing his mother, someone said he had traveled to New Jersey and killed his father and brother, too. Those rumors turned out to be false.
Voket is also a broadcaster, and was coordinating the coverage for a local radio group, while Clark was coordinating the reporters a few miles away at the Newtown Bee offices.
The Bee wanted to keep its readers informed about what was going on as quickly as possible, verifying facts as they got them, but the newspaper’s website kept crashing.
Normally, the site receives between 30,000 and 40,000 unique visits a month.
“When someone searches for Newtown online,” Voket said, “the Bee’s website is usually the first site to come up.” He couldn’t get an accurate count of website visitors that day because the site was overwhelmed. Instead, the staff switched to its Facebook page to relay information.
“We couldn’t depend on the website for breaking items,” Voket said. “It didn’t have the bandwidth.” The next day, a vendor had been contacted to have the site’s bandwidth increased. By Sunday, the weekly’s staff was pouring information onto the website.
Voket and the staff worked 18 to 20 hours a day to put out a special section on the shooting, which went to press late Monday.
“It was the first time in the paper’s 135-year history that the Bee had put out a special edition,” Voket said. It had not done one for the attack on Pearl Harbor or the end of World War II.
The 10-page section detailed the shootings and highlighted those who had been killed. It talked about the incredible bravery of the school administrators and teachers who put themselves between the shooter and the children in their care. It also had two full pages of letters to the editor from all over, expressing sympathy and condolences.
Voket said he was standing in the firehouse’s empty bays, which were packed with families of children in the school, waiting for news as authorities began reuniting the survivors with their families.
“It was like an exodus,” he said. But soon it was just the victim’s families who were left. Everyone on the paper’s staff knew of someone or were friends with someone who knew the victims. Voket was no different. A couple with whom he is friends were still in that squad bay when the survivors departed. Talking with his friends and the authorities on the scene helped Voket over the worst of the emotional distress.
When Voket returned to the office, he was inundated with phone calls and e-mails from other news organizations. He said he did his best to return the calls and e-mails as quickly as he could, which allowed the others on staff to continue their reporting.
Media from all over the country and the world quickly filled Newtown, seeking interviews.
Voket, who has been with the Bee for nine years, said news crews were showing up on doorsteps, wanting to interview the families.
“In one situation on the Friday night of the shootings, someone at one of the victim’s homes answered the door thinking it was relatives only to find a camera in their face,” he said. “It felt like we were being invaded.”
Because of this, Voket put out a plea on Facebook for the media to give the victim’s families more breathing room. Then he asked the New England Newspaper & Press Association to post a message, which was then re-posted to state, regional and national press associations across the country.
“That (Facebook) post got 2,000 likes and hundreds of responses,” Voket said. He believes that it had the right effect. Many news crews backed off going to people’s homes and stayed on public property to do their reporting.
Readers in Newtown sent letters to the paper, thanking the weekly’s reporters for their professionalism and sensitivity.
“Hometown papers should always go above and beyond the call,” Voket said. He added that he knows everyone at the paper—from the Smith family owners to the editors and reporters to the people in the printing plant—all rose to the occasion. The paper has been in the Smith family since its founding in 1877.
“It’s important to have a community-centric newspaper,” he added, “one that is owned by people invested in the community. This is a trusted place for reliable information. And communities need that especially during challenging situations. We need community newspapers more than ever.
“I hope the people of Newtown are as proud of the Bee as we are of the community,” he said.