Sometimes we go find the news.
Other times, it finds us.
Last week Evan Ebel sped into Wise County, guns blazing, and brought a tragic story to our front door.
Although covering tragedy is nothing new at the Wise County Messenger, this time we did it with the national media looking over our shoulder.
The morning of March 21 started quietly, but by noon, we had covered a frenzied chase, a police shootout with a seemingly crazed gunman, and were exploring connections to murders in Colorado. By the next morning our work, primarily the photos by Joe Duty and Jimmy Alford, had appeared in publications, on websites and television broadcasts of at least 27 media outlets around the world.
It was not a typical news day in Wise County.
Seven of us huddled in the newsroom when we heard the word “gunshots” on the police scanner about 11 a.m. Prior to this, I spent most of the morning answering emails and doing phone interviews. I had chatted with an assistant DA and the First Baptist preacher and had plans to write all afternoon. But my plans changed quickly.
All we knew at that point was that local law enforcement was chasing a suspect who had “assaulted” a deputy in Montague County, and this guy was shooting at officers along U.S. 287.
We shifted into “breaking news mode,” which for us means a reporter and photographer head to the scene while someone at the office posts to our website and monitors Facebook comments until the dust settles.
On this day, two photographers headed to the scene, along with a reporter. After they left, we continued listening to the scanner, and I made several frantic calls to Joe and reporter Brandon Evans to give them some idea of where this guy was headed.
The gravity of the situation was brought to light when the dispatcher said, “He’s stopped … and he’s reloading.”
Those words hung heavy in the newsroom.
That’s when I knew he wasn’t trying to slow down officers, or just cause a distraction. He was shooting to kill.
The chase seemed to last forever, but in reality it was just 24 minutes. We heard the dispatcher say there was a wreck, and the suspect was still shooting.
The next words: “Suspect down.”
Was he dead? Were any officers hurt? What about the accident? Were other drivers injured?
All we could do was wait.
[Our photographers] returned quickly to post photos and share what they witnessed, while Brandon stayed at the site to gather as much information as possible.
Joe Duty sent one photo from the scene that we had already posted, and we began combing through others while waiting for Brandon to return. I knew it was a matter of time before the Dallas/Fort Worth TV stations started calling. They monitor our breaking news and will often call asking for permission to run Joe’s photos, hoping we’ll feed them other key details.
The funny thing is, our staff initally agreed: No TV. We weren’t sharing with anyone.
“They can come get their own story.” That was the prevailing sentiment. You see, when the DFW TV crews call, they’re often demanding and want us to just give away everything we’ve worked hard to gather. They regularly insinuate their newscast should be our top priority, even though we’re in the midst of covering it for our readers and have no obligation to their viewers.
Plus, we’ve been burned a few times. Photos have been run on TV without our permission or what’s worse, without giving Duty or the Wise County Messenger credit.
Fellow newspapers, we decided, would be handled differently. Obviously, we’d share as much as we could with them.
The first to call was the Times Record-News in Wichita Falls, who wanted to post one of our photos to their website. In the meantime, we heard the Montague County deputy had been shot, but we didn’t have that verified. We contacted the Bowie News trying to get those details and began a little sleuth work of our own on the Colorado connection.
Coincidentally, a Messenger staff member has family who live just a few streets away from Tom Clements, the head of the Colorado prison system who was murdered earlier in the week. They immediately recognized that the black, boxy car with Colorado plates matched the description from the vehicle in that incident. Brandon began calling authorities in Colorado trying to substantiate that, but it was all speculation at this point.
By mid-afternoon, it seemed inevitable there was a Colorado connection, and this story was now national news. Brandon spoke with a Denver TV station, and The Denver Post came calling.
“Oh, my gosh! Those photos are epic! Did this happen like right next to your office?” asked Dana Coffield, the Post’s city editor.
I was caught off-guard. This is just what we do.
But I enjoyed hashing it out with her. We listen to the police scanner 24/7, so as soon as we heard there was a chase, we headed that way. We also had a photographer shooting on both sides of the scene, which provided extensive coverage.
And I gently reminded her that it’s a small town. It doesn’t take long to get anywhere.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram called shortly thereafter requesting photos, and as a bonus, they offered to post them on the AP wire for us. At that point, the photos were availabe to any paper that’s a member of the Associated Press, which enabled us to spend more time on coverage and less time emailing photos.
The afternoon was a haze of press conferences, phone calls and re-telling the story time and again. As the magnitude of the story became more clear, we backed off our stand against TV news and were happy to share with ABC World News Tonight, CNN and the CBS Evening News, just to name a few. The Dallas/Fort Worth media outlets were in Decatur conducting interviews and shooting their own footage.
The next morning, one of Joe Duty’s photos was plastered across the Star-Telegram front page, and Jimmy Alford had one on the front of the Denver Post.
Videos and photos also appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, Daily Mail (UK), Kansas City Star, KnoxNews (Knoxville, Tenn.), Yahoo!News, New York Daily News, Boston Globe, The Inquirer (Philadelphia), Dallas Morning News and The Pueblo Chieftain (Colorado).
Readers also saw the Messenger’s work in USA Today, Associated Press (The Big Story Section), Fresno Bee, Los Angeles Times, Salt Lake Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle PI, Tri City Herald (Washington), Boston Herald and the World Journal.
I’ll admit; we were all a bit starstruck, but we had also all worked hard to report the story quickly and accurately while being sensitive to the families, officers and emergency responders involved.
We take pride in local news and making sure that’s the focus of our coverage. We only cover “national news” if we can find a local angle.
On this day, the line between local and national disappeared, and we were all just reporters.