How a business publication covered the mass shooting
Cindy Barth of the editor of the Orlando Business Journal, which spent most of the week reporting and writing stories related to the shooting at the Orlando nightclub that killed 50 people and injured 53 more.
“It’s not the kind of week of events we ever hope to have to cover, but sometimes life deals you a harsh hand,” said Barth. “I’m extraordinarily proud of the fact that my staff of four writers was able to put out this many stories and didn’t lose sight of focusing them through the Business Journal lens and not chase unrelated stories.”
Barth has been editor of the American City Business Journals publication for nearly 10 years, and before that she was managing editor for seven years. She started at the Orlando paper in 1992 and has also been research director and special publications editor.
Barth spoke by email with Talking Biz News about how the paper covered the shooting. What follows is an edited transcript.
The first story was on your website by 9:30 a.m. on Sunday. How was the paper able to react so fast?
I was up early that Sunday morning on my way to church when I heard the news. Because I was away from a computer, I texted Managing Editor Susan Lundine and asked her to quickly aggregate the relevant parts of the story that we knew right then.
She updated info in that original story all day long as details began to emerge and sent out a news alert as soon as the first story posted. Because it was a Sunday, a lot of people weren’t aware at first that the mass shooting had taken place, even though the news was being reported by multiple media outlets.
Was there any planning of coverage on Sunday, or just reacting to the news?
Sunday became the day to get the initial news out there, so it was more of a reaction to what was happening kind of day. However, we did spend the day looking at what our next steps would be on coverage because this was not a typical business story since it involved a nightclub and mostly young people who were the victims of the shootings.
However, with 49 victims, there was a good possibility — because of their ages — that local businesses were going to find out that they lost a staff person. Since it was going to take a day or two to ID the victims, we then turned our attention to other stories we needed to report on for our business audience.
This isn’t a typical business story. How did you make your stories relevant to your readers?
The mass shooting that took place created a very emotional and raw reaction from the community at large, as you would expect. We knew it would be easy to find ourselves trying to cover all the stories, not necessarily the ones, as a business publication, we should focus on. That’s hard under normal circumstances, and doubly difficult when emotions are at such a high level due to the circumstances.
We started to develop our coverage plan by asking ourselves what the business community at-large needed to know. That discussion took place at 8:30 a.m. on the Monday after the shootings. Everyone on staff took on multiple stories and began the reporting process. So far, we’ve posted about 30 stories online and will continue to watch as other relevant news happens.
How does a small staff like yours juggle reporting on breaking news such as this while continuing to focus on putting out a weekly print paper at the end of the week?
We have a reporting staff of four, one of whom started on the Monday right after the shootings. In our discussions on what we needed to cover, each reporter took on relevant stories to their regular beat coverage areas. Editors picked up additional relevant stories, as well as other business news that needed to be reported.
We knew we had to do something in the print edition for the week of June 17, but since that paper didn’t come out until Friday — almost a week after the shootings — we made the decision to revamp our front page and interior a bit differently. This week’s front cover features a photo from the June 13 vigil for the victims in which thousands came to downtown to take part. It’s one of those stunning early evening photos with candles lit and the skyline in the background.
Inside the print edition, we dedicated three full pages to some of the coverage we did throughout the week, as well as new stories related to business issues in the aftermath. The rest of the weekly paper was as usual, with a cover story, reporter pages and other relevant news for the week.
How did the paper decide what stories to cover?
Our story selection decision came through periodic stand-up meetings as we caught each other up on what we had learned in the reporting process. We also discussed what we believed the business community would like to know/needed to know as a result of the mass shootings, which helped us also pick up relevant stories on the impact this might have on the economy at large, as well as the tourism business, specifically, the role technology (i.e., social media) played in the event, legal and insurance risks businesses can face as the result of such an event, etc.
Are there any angles to the story that you wish the paper had explored?
I think we were all intrigued by the survivor stories, in particular. We did one such story with a survivor who had gotten knocked to the floor in the stampede to leave the nightclub, injuring his leg. He had to remain still as he heard the shooter moving through the building shooting victims lying on the floor to ensure they were dead. He was shot two more times, but managed to remain still enough that the shooter didn’t know he was alive. He later was rescued once the shooter had been killed.
Those kinds of stories are not our regular coverage, but I still wish we could have told a few more of those. We did do a story on how businesses near the shooting site have been impacted, and those kinds of stories are pretty compelling as well. Overall, between what we wrote and what some of our sister papers contributed, I was pleased with what we did.
You had a new staff writer start this week. How did they contribute?
The new staff writer leaped right in to help in a couple of ways. While others were tied up in other stories, she volunteered to go to the mayor’s one-on-one meetings with reporters and took along questions others needed answered as well. One of our reporters attended a press conference at the hospital where the majority of the shooting victims were taken.
It was so crowded that she couldn’t see who was talking (there were several health care professionals on the panel), so she texted back and asked if someone could watch the livestream of the conference and take notes to tie in statements with the person who said it. The new reporter did that. She also contributed a couple of stories related to economic impact during the course of the first few days. Heck of a way to start your new job.
You’ve been with the paper for 24 years. Did anything in the past prepare you for handling this situation?
Most of my staff is young enough not to have even been reporting news during events as recent as Sept. 11, 2001. However, Lundine and I have been with OBJ long enough to have dealt with that, with the unexpected tornadoes that hit Central Florida several years ago and left a path of destruction through the region and the year that four hurricanes plowed through us, as well. This event was unlike any of those simply due to the horror of what happened and the complete unexpectedness of it.
We’ve had discussions at editors’ meetings in Charlotte about how to handle these kinds of events, so while the event itself caught everyone off-guard, we had a clear idea of how we needed to handle it, and that helped us not waste time trying to figure out what to do.
What advice would you give to other ACBJ papers on preparing for something like this?
A number of our ACBJ papers have had to deal with big news events — the Boston bombings, Freddie Gray, the Birmingham tornadoes — so we have somewhat of a roadmap on how to effectively cover them. My advice to others would be the same advice the editors of those papers gave me: Focus on what we do best and make sure to answer all the questions the business community needs to know.
I noticed that many of the paper’s stories also appeared on other ACBJ paper websites. How did you coordinate that?
Because of the nature of the mass shooting event and the national/international coverage it generated, the entire country pretty much was aware that this had happened. Most ACBJ markets look to see if there are any ways their market might be impacted by an event such as this and, if so, they’ll do their own coverage.
We knew Tampa had a big Pride event coming up and would be watching closely how this might affect their plans. But I also was emailed by other editors who had relevant stories to alert me to feel free to copy them over on our site.
Plus, the National Content Team in Charlotte was watching the coverage and made a number of suggestions about things to watch, as well as occasionally sent links to other sites/stories of relevance. It definitely was a group effort in news coverage.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned this week?
The biggest lesson was the importance of a group effort in helping us do the type of coverage we needed to do. By that, I mean that the stand-up brainstorming sessions allowed us an opportunity to talk through what we needed to do, with everyone contributing ideas, sources that should be included in the story, etc.
It’s easy sometimes to think that you have all the right ideas, only to discover that others are quite valuable in that discussion. This has always been a habit in our newsroom, and it certainly was most important in dealing with the mass shooting stories. Plus, having 40-plus sister papers lending their expertise along the way was a huge factor in allowing even more expertise to weigh in on this event.