How Pittsburgh’s WESA mobilized its newsroom to cover the Tree of Life shooting

Patrick Doyle was leaving a pick-up basketball game two Saturdays ago when his cell phone rang. Doyle is the news director of WESA, the public radio station in Pittsburgh, and as he was heading out from the gym he received a phone call letting him know there was an active shooter at the Tree of Life Synagogue.

Doyle quickly dispatched two reporters to the scene and began working with other editors to coordinate coverage as he made his way into the newsroom. Over the next few days, the WESA newsroom worked tirelessly to cover story.

This week in Solution Set, we’re going to look at how WESA prepared for this type of breaking news event, how it coordinated with other newsrooms, and how its staff dealt with the tragedy and its aftermath.

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Solutions Journalism Network. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.

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Here’s the TLDR:


TLDR

• The Challenge: WESA created a playbook to help it prepare for major breaking news events.

• The Strategy: The newsroom worked in shifts to cover the news and it coordinated with other Pennsylvania stations and national NPR to share resources and coverage.

• The Numbers: There are 20 journalists in WESA’s newsroom and they produced more than 40 stories for national NPR shows on the Tree of Life shooting.

• The Lessons: It’s critical to have plans in place to address breaking news and it’s similarly helpful to be able to rely on existing partnerships during moments of breaking news.

• The Future: WESA plans to hold sessions with its newsroom to address the challenges of covering stories such as shootings.

• Want to know more?: Scroll down to learn how news organizations prepared to cover active shooter scenarios and more.


The Challenge

WESA’s newsroom isn’t that big. There’s a team of about 20 people in total with nine reporters plus a mix of editors, anchors, and digital staffers.

The team is even thinner on the weekends and at night, with just an anchor and maybe a reporter in the newsroom.

But, as every journalist knows, breaking news doesn’t just occur during business hours. Over the past couple of years, WESA realized it needed to plan in place so it would be prepared to mobilize a major emergency if it occurred at nights or on the weekends.

So when Doyle, the station’s news director, first heard that there had been a shooting at the synagogue, the newsroom was ready to spring into action.

“We’ve done a few things that came in handy for this situation,” Doyle told me.

About two years ago, WESA news editor Liz Reid created an on-call system for nights and weekends. The station now has a rotation of a reporter, an editor, and a digital producer on call to deal with breaking stories. Typically, that may be something like a broken water main affecting part of the city, but they have their reporting kits with them at home so they’ll be able to record stories at a moment’s notice.

WESA also recently finished a months-long process of developing a crisis plan for how it should handle stories that require more than just the on-call staff. We’ll discuss the details of the plan more fully in The Strategy and in The Lessons, but Doyle said the plan was essential to how the station approached this story and managed its staff in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

And last summer, Doyle attended a session at a public radio conference where attendees participated in a role-playing exercise to mobilize their teams to cover a mass shooting. The exercise was developed by John Stempin, an NPR editor. Scroll down to Want to Know More? for more details about the game.

“We have the on-call schedule, we have our crisis plan that was informed by best practices from around the country that have gone through this,” Doyle said. “So we went in as well prepared as one can be in a situation like this.”


The Strategy

Within minutes of the shooting, two of WESA’s on-call reporters headed to the scene with their field kits and computers. Doyle and his team then began calling other editors and reporters into the newsroom.

“I was at first coordinating from home and then of our editors got into the newsroom so she could spearhead coverage as I was driving the 10-15 minutes across town,” Doyle said. “We just tried to divide and conquer.”

In major breaking stories, NPR regularly relies on its local member stations to assist with coverage when possible. And almost immediately WESA began coordinating with the network to assist with coverage. Not even 10 minutes had past from the time of the first alerts to when Jim Kane, NPR’s deputy managing editor, was talking with Doyle to plan coverage.

“Within minutes I was on the phone with Patrick and it was amazing how quickly he got his staff in action on a Saturday morning,” Kane told me. “Within 10 minutes of the first tweets Patrick and I were talking and he already had two reporters on their way to the scene.”

One of the reporters focused on filing reports for NPR’s national newscasts and another editor worked with the station’s weekend host to keep them up-to-date with the most recent information on air.

Shortly after the news of the shooting broke, WITF, the public radio station in Harrisburg, Pa., also reached out to WESA to offer to help with editing or reporting if it needed extra staffing. WESA accepted the station’s offer of help, and WITF quickly dispatched one of its reporters to Pittsburgh to pitch in. (More on this in The Lessons.)

In total, WESA had about half of its newsroom come in that Saturday to assist with coverage both in the field and in the newsroom. Another team of staffers came in Sunday to pick up the coverage and continue reporting on new developments as that morning authorities released the names of the victims and continued their investigation.


The Numbers

Over the first few days after the shooting, WESA staffers filed dozens of stories for local, statewide, and national audiences.

The station ultimately did more than 40 stories in various formats for NPR and its national shows as well.

“We have a newsroom where everyone is smart and capable and willing to step up and to tackle those things. It’s not a place where you just rely on one or two people. We had 11 or 12 people do something for the national network, which is really amazing to have people say, yes you can do a live two way with Ari Shapiro and you feel totally comfortable with that or you can go file some newscast spots on a vigil that’s happening. The newsroom really stepped up. Everyone wanted to participate.”

One reporter from WITF spent a couple days embedded with the WESA team to assist with coverage.

NPR sent about four reporters and producers to Pittsburgh to cover the story. In addition, the network decided to host Weekend All Things Considered from Pittsburgh on that Sunday, so 10 or so staffers arrived Saturday night to help produce that show.

“It was great to be working side-by-side with NPR reporters and producers in our newsroom,” Doyle said. “We could say, ‘OK we have limited  resources, NPR reporter can you cover this event and we’ll cover something else. Then we can share tape back and forth.’ We were really fortunate to be able to do that.”


The Lessons

• Be prepared: WESA was able to move so quickly to cover the shooting at Tree of Life because it had a plan in place. Between the on-call reporters and the crisis plan, the staff and leadership knew what they needed to do to cover the story and provide accurate information to the community.

But even beyond the immediate reporting, the station relied on relationships and best practices that it had already established to be able to most effectively cover the story.

For example, Pennsylvania’s public radio stations already frequently share coverage, so WESA could rely on existing relationships and joint infrastructure to share coverage with others across Pennsylvania.

“Just having a pre-existing system, logistics, a shared statewide server that we can put content on, and an email list that everything goes out to makes things happen faster than if you’re having to create that from scratch,” Doyle said

Collaborating with other outlets expanded WESA’s capacity and helped it cover an all consuming story. But the groundwork for that collaboration was created well before the emergency as it has worked with others across Pennsylvania and with NPR on both individual stories and larger projects. It’s essential to build those relationships and that understanding across organizations ahead of time so you can rely on them during breaking news.

• How to offer help: As soon as he heard the news about the shooting in Pittsburgh, Scott Blanchard, the editor of StateImpact Pennsylvania emailed Doyle offering editing or reporting help. StateImpact Pennsylvania is a statewide collaboration based at WITF, and Blanchard had gotten to know Doyle through regular planning calls and because StateImpact Pennsylvania has reporter in WESA’s newsroom.

Doyle, in the midst of covering the breaking story, replied saying he would let WITF know if the station needed extra help. Meanwhile, Blanchard was coordinating with Cara Williams Fry, WITF senior vice president & chief content officer, and multimedia news director Tim Lambert.

They quickly decided “the best thing to do might be to come up with a plan of what we could offer and when and just send that to Patrick and say this is what we could do. With him having to make 100 decisions during Saturday, it takes one of those away. He can just look a this and say, ‘This looks great,’ which is essentially what he did,'” Blanchard told me.

WITF reporter, Katie Meyer, drove to Pittsburgh and began assisting WESA. She stayed through the early part of the week following the shooting. Meyer typically covers the state Capitol, and Pennsylvania’s public radio stations share coverage, so she knew the team at WESA already, which helped.

It’s become more common for newsrooms to help one another in the wake of major stories such as natural disasters or shootings. If your newsroom is going to offer to help, you should make it as easy as possible for the newsroom under stress to accept the help.

• Reporters are people, too: WESA’s reporters, editors, and producers all live in the community were affected by the tragedy as well. The team took steps to make sure that the newsroom was taking care of itself and not stretched too thin.

On the Saturday of the shooting, only half of the newsroom was called in. The next day, the other half took over the coverage. This was an intentional part of WESA’s playbook so a fresh team could take over and continue the coverage while giving the others a chance to rest and reflect with their families.

“The team that came in on Saturday for the immediate coverage was just the group most immediately available that day. If it had been another Saturday, it would have been a different combination of people, and we would have been able to provide the same type of coverage,” Doyle told me in email. “We’re fortunate, as a newsroom, to have a group of reporters, hosts, editors, and producers that can pass the baton back and forth, and give one another much-needed breaks for such difficult coverage.”

Other newsrooms also sent meals to WESA to ensure the team covering the story was well-fed. And Doyle said other newsroom leaders who had been through similar circumstances reached out to offer advice and support.

“There is a built in knowledge at this point,” Doyle said. “Those people started reaching out as soon as Saturday offering their support if you need help or advice. That support is pretty amazing as  well.”


The Future

WESA plans to continue to ensure the well-being of its staff. Blanchard, from WITF, is scheduled to visit the station next week to conduct a workshop on how journalists can cope with such difficult coverage.

Blanchard was a fellow at the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, which educates journalists covering trauma and also provides assistance to journalists who have experienced trauma themselves.

“Journalism has a macho culture that nobody wants to admit that they would be bothered by  anything, in part because they don’t want to miss out on the next assignment,” he said. “In part, it’s creating a culture where it’s not only OK to talk about how difficult it is to cover some of these things, but it’s probably a good idea to talk about it because it ends up strengthening your resilience to do cover this kind of incident like the Pittsburgh shooting.”

And even as the national media narrative has moved on mostly from Pittsburgh, Doyle said WESA will continue to cover the aftermath and fallout from the shooting.

“We’ll be covering this for weeks, months, years,” he said. “This isn’t going to be going away. We have a number of stories we’re working on. It’s going to be a part of Pittsburgh forever, unfortunately.”


Want to know more?

• Here’s an overview from the PRNDI conference of how the active shooting simulation has helped public radio newsrooms prepare to cover these breaking news stories.

• Poynter’s Kristen Hare has a fascinating overview of how newsrooms in the path of Hurricane Florence planned to collaborate on coverage.

• After the shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis earlier this year, journalists from around the country volunteered to help the paper’s staff. Here’s a Washington Post story on the effort.

• The Dart Center has assembled a number of excellent resources. Here’s some research on how covering trauma impacts journalists.


Anything to add?

As always, please reach out with any questions or if you’d like to share your own experiences.

See you next Thursday!


Creative Commons photo from Tree of Life vigil by Gov Tom Wolf.

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