Site Unseen: D.C.-based reporters got scoops by phone, beating colleagues on the ground at Virginia Tech.
Site Unseen: D.C.-based reporters got scoops by phone, beating colleagues on the ground at Virginia Tech. Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

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In 1981, Washington Post reporter Michael E. Ruane learned a valuable lesson about reporting. He was working for the Evening and Sunday Bulletin, a Philadelphia daily, and inmates in a state facility outside of town had taken a group of hostages in the joint’s kitchen. Ruane and a mob of other reporters descended on the place and ended up in a staging room, where they waited for correctional officials to give their hollow statements as events unfolded.

Then, a reporter walked over to a phone sitting in the room, rang up the kitchen, and interviewed the captors. “It’s bad that we were scooped—doubly bad that it was a TV reporter,” recalls Ruane.

No one had to instruct Ruane last Monday to pick up the phone following reports of a mass shooting on the Virginia Tech campus. He just started pounding, with the help of the competition. Reading through a blog by the Roanoke Times, Ruane came across an item featuring an interview of “a guy who mentioned a guy who had jumped out the window of Room 204” of Norris Hall.

After an assist from the Post‘s research unit, Ruane was on the line with the jumper by mid-afternoon. The guy wouldn’t talk but gave Ruane the number of another jumper who might be more willing to open up. That worked. Ruane quoted student Richard Mallalieu describing the onslaught: “A steady pop, pop, pop, pop.”

More phone work added to the scene reconstruction. Reporters Jose Antonio Vargas and Josh White got ahold of people who’d been inside Norris, and together with Ruane’s work, they produced a pint-size narrative of the tragedy for the next day’s editions. That reporting, in turn, fed the comprehensive narrative in the paper’s Thursday editions by David Maraniss, a piece of work that is thus far the definitive reporting achievement of the massacre.

The New York Times, with 34 reporters and stringers on the case, couldn’t even match the Post on the reconstruction. The Times confined a considerable portion of its own narrative to its Web site days after the Maraniss piece. Times National Editor Suzanne Daley writes via e-mail: “[F]or space reasons, and because we had already written a lot about the events on the second floor of Norris Hall, the final chapter of the narrative ran only on the web. It is not uncommon for us to run longer versions of stories on the web.”

Other competitors took note of the Post‘s success on the blower. “From reading them, yeah, it seemed like a lot of [the news] was coming from D.C.,” says Mike Gangloff, a reporter with the Roanoke Times.

So bag all the advice you got from your editor or journalism prof. Those are the folks who’ve established the wisdom that good reporting involves burning calories. Get out of the office. Hit the streets. Just think of the acronym that has long inspired reporters at the Los Angeles Times: GOYA/KOD—”Get Off Your Ass/Knock On Doors.”

In light of the Post‘s reportorial romp of last week, a new acronym is in order: SD/HSC—”Sit Down, Have Some Coffee.” Vargas, after all, wasn’t exactly working up a sweat when he nailed his exclusive with massacre eyewitness Trey Perkins.

After getting Perkins’ name, Vargas found that he was on Vargas then requested to “friend” Perkins. Perkins assented, giving the reporter access to the Tech student’s profile. Some IM’ing followed, and then Vargas scored a 20-minute phoner with him.

All this went down about two hours after the shootings. That Perkins was actually online at that time demonstrates that some sources in today’s world are easier to reach with a ping on the computer than a knock on the door. “Now we know that reaching people on the Internet is like knocking on doors,” says Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.

Yet working from the office has other advantages in crisis situations, according to Ruane, who’s been reporting for more than 30 years. “It’s common for people on the scene to strike out in the early hours of a story, and the people who are working the phones to get through,” he says. “By going with the telephone, you are going over the police lines and over the yellow tape and over the gendarmes who won’t let you go down the street. The phone kind of gets you over all of that and can, if you’re lucky, land you in the living room or the dorm room.”

And the Post sure has enough bodies to hit the scene of the crime, the phones, and any spaces in between. In the peak of its Virginia Tech frenzy, about 75 employees*—reporters, editors, researchers, photographers, et al.—were working some angle of the story. Maraniss’ narrative carried an additional-credits line naming 20 reporters and researchers.

Given its Blacksburg showing, the Post has declared that its staff reductions of recent years haven’t compromised its impact on the big story. Sure, those early-retirement offers and planned attrition have forced some compromises: The paper no longer has an in-house plane-crash specialist, for example, and the legendary Istanbul bureau is history. But when that big honking cataclysm comes over the wires, a newsroom of 800 is more than outfitted for the job. Wrote top Metro editor Robert McCartney in a memo to staff: “You have produced three straight days of superlative coverage of the deadliest mass shooting by an individual in American history. This is a substantial accomplishment.”

* Post Ombudsman Deborah Howell incorrectly reported on Sunday that the paper had 75 reporters on the story “[w]ithin a few hours.”**

** Correction, 4/27, 11:45 a.m. Howell’s number is based on a by-line count plus an unspecified number of reporters who were awaiting obit assignments as of Monday afternoon. This is a fair way of tallying the numbers, and we regret singling out Howell.