The Arizona Daily Star Does Its Job

Just after 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, January 8, Bobbie Jo Buel, editor of the Arizona Daily Star, was at home taking down Christmas decorations when she received a call from the newsroom about a report on the police scanner of a shooting on the other side of Tucson. Within minutes, there were tweets of multiple casualties, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The local police were calling for reinforcements from other jurisdictions, which was further evidence that a major incident had taken place. By the first edition 12 hours later, the newspaper had five full pages on the shootings, in which six people were killed, including U.S. district court judge John M. Roll, and 13 people were wounded. Representative Giffords had a serious brain injury, but was holding on in the ICU in critical condition.

In 31 years at the Arizona Daily Star, the second-largest newspaper in the state, with a circulation of over 100,000, Buel had never encountered an area story of this magnitude. The Star, which was founded in 1877, had been owned by the Pulitzer Publishing Company for decades until it was taken over in 2005 by Lee Enterprises, a publicly traded company with 54 other dailies around the country. Although the national newspaper depression of recent years meant some cutbacks, the Star was still far and away the largest news organization in the region. As details poured in, Buel realized that, in various ways, the victims were "about two degrees of separation" from many members of her staff, adding to the emotional force of the massacre and the challenge of covering an enormous story from every perspective, including that of the alleged shooter, Jared L. Loughner, a 22-year-old with a record of mental instability.

Local television and the public radio station were on the scene also, but it was only the newspaper that could devote the space and depth to provide a fully rounded report.

In addition to the lead-all, the Sunday paper had full profiles of all the casualties and of Loughner, sidebars on community and nationwide reaction, graphics and photographs, columns, an editorial, and much more. Every one of the 100 or so staffers that were available was called in, and in succeeding days, a cascade of additional stories appeared. The headline in Thursday's edition was this quote from President Obama's speech to a huge crowd in an arena and adjoining stadium: "What matters is not wealth, or status, or power or fame, but how well we have loved." With Giffords now in a rehabilitation facility in Texas, the story has moved to follow-up accounts and projects, including a takeout on the availability of guns such as the Glock semiautomatic pistol that sells for $550 and the 33-round ammunition clip that Loughner had purchased at a Sportsman's Warehouse near his home. "There was nothing to stop him from buying the gun," the first story on the weapon reported.

I met Bobbie Jo Buel last month at a gathering where she was representing the Associated Press Managing Editors, of which she was a past president. What I wanted to know was the impact this extraordinary event had on the Arizona Daily Star and the community it served as a way of measuring how a medium-sized metropolitan daily, in the midst of the crisis affecting all newspapers, could handle so complex a story in print and online. Reading through the papers she sent me of that tumultuous week, Buel and her colleagues can be very proud. The basic account of what happened was known almost immediately and was posted on the Star's website, which came within minutes of reporting that Giffords was dead, a mistake that was averted when one of the congresswoman's aides called from the emergency room to contradict an erroneous NPR report. Local television and the public radio station were on the scene also, but it was only the newspaper that could devote the space and depth to provide a fully rounded report. Buel said she was moved and gratified by the outpouring from readers, including victims' families, and even political figures and advertisers who, in the routine course of things, have had their differences with the paper. She said that comments particularly noted the Star's respect for sensitivities of a community in anguish and what was regarded as the fairness of stories about everyone involved--onlookers who brought down Loughner before he could do more harm, law enforcement, and the response of Tucson's civic and religious organizations.

"In its way it is dumfounding when so many people thank you for doing your job," Buel said, reflecting on the reaction.

The Arizona Daily Star has fared better than many other papers in the overall downturn, according to the statistics on circulation and advertising. But it had had to cut feature coverage back, from seven days to five, and consolidated some sections. What Buel calls the "franchise beats" have been spared, immigration issues (Tucson is an hour from the Mexican border), environment and technology, reflecting the interests of readers and the presence of companies such as Raytheon and college sports at the University of Arizona (the city has no professional teams). No metro reporters were laid off, she said, and her goals remain as they always have been: to provide readers with reliable fair-minded, thorough coverage of what matters most to them.

The events of January 8 were a reminder that what good newspapers (and their digital partners) do is indispensible: bringing the events and their meaning to readers in ways that no one else really can. For those who wonder whether we still need newspapers, the tragedy in Tucson proved again how much we do.