Small staff on a huge story

How the Galveston newspaper is covering the Santa Fe school shooting

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It began with a phone tip to The Galveston County Daily News.

"Early on Friday morning we got a call from a person who we know as a source and who trusts us that there were going to be gunshot casualties coming to an area hospital and that they were coming from the high school in Santa Fe," said Editor Michael Smith.

"This is somebody that we know absolutely to be a credible source and was in a position to know. We started mobilizing the staff from there, sending people to the emergency room and to the school. We were there shortly after the first responders."

Since then, the local paper with a staff of five news reporters, three photographers and an IT person who used to be a photographer has been covering the mass shooting alongside the Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other large news organizations. "It's been all Santa Fe, all the time for the last few days," Smith said.

Located in hurricane country on the Texas Gulf coast, The Daily News staff is well prepared for disaster coverage. Two major hurricanes, Ike and Harvey, have struck the region in the last 10 years. Smith said the staff is accustomed to long hours and rapidly changing conditions, and he prefers to hire reporters who especially like to cover breaking news. He said he thinks the staff is better prepared to deal with trauma because of its hurricane experience.

Still, a student entering a small town high school and opening fire on his fellow students and teachers is not the same as a weather event with advance notice and that everyone can literally see coming on radar. Ten people died in Santa Fe, eight students and two teachers. Santa Fe is one of nine school districts in Galveston County. Both the school district and the city have their own police forces, but they're small. Not only was the newspaper staff stretched thin, so were local government and school officials.

Unexpected but welcome support came from journalists across the country. Smith said former staff members as well as other individual journalists sent messages of encouragement. The South Florida Sun Sentinel and the Chicago Tribune each had pizzas delivered to The Daily News.

When Smith emailed Sun Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson to thank her for the pizza, he also asked if she had any advice for covering the Santa Fe shooting. Although Anderson joined the Sun Sentinel two weeks after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., she came from The Orlando Sentinel and had been involved in coverage of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in 2016.

"She sent a really thoughtful note back about lessons that they had learned in trying to cover a huge, terrible event like this," Smith said. Included were "nuts and bolts" tips that weren't obvious as the news was breaking, he said.  Read about the tips Julie Anderson has for newspapers.

One advantage The Daily News had over news media with more staff and resources was local sources. "I think the advantage that the local paper ought to have is that you know all the people who are caught up in this thing," Smith said.  "You should have sources in the community already, people that you've talked to about many other things and you have their cell phone numbers. You know who they are and where they are, and you have a relationship with them so that they'll return your calls."

Smith said it's important to make sure the news staff has food available at work and that everyone gets some time off. Reporters have been rotated on and off since the shooting.

Getting official information has been difficult in part because the city and school district were overwhelmed by news media attention, and in part because so many decisions are still being made, Smith said. Santa Fe High School's graduation is coming up, and final exams and standardized tests have been disrupted. The district had already lost school days because of the torrential flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey, so the newspaper is trying to find out about state waivers, among other questions. At the same time, victim's families are planning funerals.

"Things are far, far, far from normal," Smith said.

For more information, contact Michael Smith at Michael.Smith@galvnews.com.


Jane Nicholes

Jane Nicholes is a veteran journalist based in coastal Alabama and is a regular contributor to SNPA. Reach her at jbnicholes@att.net.

Suggestions for future stories and comments on this piece are welcomed.

Galveston

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