"When dawn spreads its paintbrush on the plain, spilling purple... ," Sons of the Pioneers theme for TV show "Wagon Train." Dawn on the mythic Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico, looking toward Raton from Cimarron. -- Clarkphoto. A curmudgeon artist's musings melding metaphors and journalism, for readers in more than 150 countries.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The journalism of April 19, 20 years ago--part 2

Front page of The Daily Oklahoman, April 19, 1995
 The Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building bombing on April 19, 20 years ago, affected the entire state. I think it is the only news story since statehood getting almost universal coverage in Oklahoma's almost 200 daily and weekly papers. Pearl Harbor, or 9-11 since then, may be close.
At the time of the bombing, there were 47 dailies and 136 weeklies in Oklahoma. From Boise City to Idabell and Pitcher to Eldorado, I found only four newspapers that didn't have stories about the bombing. My content analysis was for The Oklahoma Press Association newspaper, The Oklahoma Publisher.
The newspaper most affected by the bombing was the daily business newspaper, the Journal-Record, located across the street north from the federal building. Its building now houses the Bombing Memorial museum.
Several staff members, including one of our UCO grads, were injured and were lucky they weren't standing in front of their south windows when the blast occurred. After missing the next day's issue, in an amazing feat of journalism, those journalists used our computers in the UCO Vista to produce the remarkable next issue.
It was "only" a two-page paper--front and back--headlined "Eyewitness Accounts of the Tragedy," were first person stories by each staff member. 
Oklahoma's two largest newspapers, The Daily Oklahoman and the Tulsa World, starred in their coverage, not just the day after but for weeks and months to come. The World's photo coverage was stunning.
For Oklahoma City's hometown The  Oklahoman, it was the paper's finest hour.  The building, a few miles north of the bombing and built to withstand a tornado, shook. The reporters and photographers were downtown almost immediately, some in their heels scrambling through rubble.
The entire news staff showed up, putting in long hours, day after day. I wasn't supposed to work that night, but went in, and got a "Yes" nod from my editor and helped edit stories and write headlines for the next day's paper. As reports of dead children came in later that day, in the break room, I saw an assistant editor looking out the window and crying.
As the weeks went by, the paper started  "Those Who Died" vignettes, little stories about each of the victims, written by several members of the staff, making the story intensely personal. Those became the model for what the New York Times did after 9-11. 

I believe the paper did more than just cover the news and humanity--it became a tangible psychological force in the survival and healing of the city and state. Every morning, people could pick up something solid, something that said the world is still normal, there is still goodness among all the bad news, something you can count on, even when your foundation of security has been blasted away. The coverage was continual; it was months before a bombing related story didn't appear on the front page.
It was also the source for news by others--it in many ways "owned" the story. Rick Bragg, Pulitizer winner for the New York Times said The Oklahoman was the paper of record--he had to pick it up every day to see what was going on.
The  Oklahoman should have won a Pulitizer Prize for its exceptional work. A tradition is the award goes to  local newspapers for excellence in responding to local crises. But it didn't, to the consternation of those hard-working journalists. My opinion is that the Pulitzer judges snubbed the paper because they so strongly disagreed with the paper's very conservative editorial page.  That was a crime, because the news staff more than earned it.

"Oklahoma City tragedy affects everyone" 
cried the headline in the Ringling Eagle in far southern Oklahoma a week later, telling the story of the state.
As an old weekly newspaper man, I was proud of how those all local news papers responded around the state--reflecting the hardiness and goodness of Okies.
"The bombing washed over Oklahoma like a harshly dropped stone in a serene pool," wrote the Wynnewood Gazette, summarizing the impact as well as any.
In my content analysis of those papers in the next two weeks I found--
  • 84 staff stories about local activities and local impressions of the bombing
  • 57 staff photos of local activities related to bombing
  • 44 staff photos about people who took part in the rescue and other efforts
  • 28 photos of the bombing site
  • 25 stories about the bombing
  • 21 stories about victims with local connections
  • 12 editorials

For  non-journalists, understand that headlines are measured by how tall they are in points--a printer's measure. There are 72 points to an inch. Many headlines today are rarely more than 36 points (a half inch) or 48 points.
The Daily Oklahoman's "Morning of Terror" in all caps was a 144 point headline.

Largest headline in the state was at the Edmond Sun, which came out with the story the afternoon of April 19, "Explosion" in all caps, 268 point
Tulsa World, "Bombing Terror," 186 point

Largest of the weeklies
Meeker News, "Act of Terrorism," 144 point.
By the way, The Daily Oklahoman became a national leader in helping train journalists on how to deal with victims of trauma and for helping journalists deal with their own trauma. It won the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma's  Excellence in Covering Trauma
Award that year and used the funds to conduct a national workshop on the UCO campus for journalists.
And the printing plate that produced their April 20  front page hangs in the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.


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