Hometown Tragedy: Tucson Weekly and the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting

"When you're in that situation, labels fall out the window."

Tucson Weekly editor Jimmy Boegle had just returned home from the gym and was washing dishes on Saturday morning when he received a call from Tom Lee, the Weekly‘s publisher.

“It’s never a good thing when your publisher is calling on a Saturday morning,” Boegle said.

Lee’s words were unintelligible, but Boegle thought he heard the words, “We’re on it,” before Lee hung up.

The reason for Lee’s call, of course, was that U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and several others had been shot, six of them fatally, at a local Safeway.

After learning the news, Boegle quickly switched into editor mode. “Let’s get the website moving,” he recalled thinking.

In the hours and days that followed, Boegle and a team of four reporters — staff writers Jim Nintzel and Mari Herreras; web producer Dan Gibson; and freelancer Hank Stephenson — worked around the clock to provide a constant stream of blog, Twitter and Facebook updates to a community desperate for information. While the national media would jump on the the story later with blanket coverage, the Weekly was tasked with trying to report on the tragedy while dealing with the same shock and horror that its readers were experiencing.

In an interview with AAN, Boegle described the events of that day, and reflected on a period he has called, “the four most emotionally draining days of my journalism career.”

It was 11:12 a.m. local time when Boegle first got word of the shooting, just an hour after it had occurred. He immediately placed calls to the three staffers, as well as Stephenson, a freelancer he described as “young and motivated and [someone who] wouldn’t have a problem going out to the scene.”

At this point, the national cable networks had yet to pick up the story. The town’s daily newspaper, Arizona Daily Star, had nothing on its site. The only mention he could find was on a blog, Three Sonorans, which is hosted on the site for the now-defunct Tucson Citizen.

(According to Boegle, a full three hours would pass before the Daily Star carried any coverage about the shooting on its website. He emphasized, however, that the paper has done “remarkable” coverage since then.)

Shortly after doling out assignments to his reporters, Boegle began hearing from readers on Facebook and Twitter who were asking for information. The paper’s first announcement went out on its Facebook and Twitter accounts at 11:32 a.m., “Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords shot in Tucson this morning,” which linked to its blog, Daily Dispatch The Range. Boegle and staff decided to keep updating that initial blog post throughout the day, rather than create separate posts for each new bit of information. That proved useful when others retweeted that first status update or shared the link hours later.

As new details trickled in, the blog was updated and the info was pushed to the paper’s social media followers in real-time. Outbound links to other news outlets were frequently included in the posts.

“If it was good info, I linked to it. Really, we were just trying to get info out there to people. It wasn’t about getting the story first,” Boegle explained.

When NPR reported Giffords’ death, it was passed along to readers.

“We didn’t say that she had passed away, we said ‘NPR is reporting she passed away,’ and that’s when I had my burst into tears moment,” he recounted. “But we were also hearing from multiple sources that she had passed, which, was probably because when you see someone shot at point blank range in the brain, it doesn’t look good.”

At 12:40 p.m. the blog was updated to reflect that NPR was backtracking.

An hour and a half later, the name Jared Lee Loughner became known to the world.

“Once Loughner’s name leaked out, Dan [Gibson] did an amazing job combing the internet. And before anyone else had it, he really wrote the definitive piece exposing this guy’s sick mind.”

On his role as editor, Boegle says, “I had the easy job that day, I basically went back to my AP days and became the rewrite person. I was the hub, the traffic cop, sitting on my couch in my sweats, while our reporters were out there getting the stories. They were amazing.”

“We finally stopped at about 11 p.m. that night. It wasn’t until Sunday that I stepped back and remembered we had an issue to print. So we made a tentative plan for the week ahead and got to work.”

The paper had originally planned to run its Spring Arts Preview this week, and it decided to keep the Arts Preview in along with the Giffords pieces.

“We dedicated the front of the issue to Gabby, but we left the back of the book intact. We figured, at a time like this, people need distractions, people might want to know what bands are playing this weekend.”

Looking back on this week’s events, he told us, “This has been was one of weirdest experiences of my life, seeing the graphic ‘Tragedy In Tucson’ on the bottom of CNN is just surreal. It’s insane, absurd, and hard to believe. I was just at that Safeway a week ago buying batteries.”

The tragedy wasn’t just a journalistic challenge for Boegle and his team. As Tucson residents, they also experienced the frustrations of seeing their town judged from afar.

“Everyone has this perception that Arizona must be a really terrible place, and that offends me. Look, SB 1070 is a disgrace and we came out against it from the start. But Tucson is a great place, just because some fuckhead committed this horrible crime, it doesn’t change that. I mean look at all the great stories that are coming out, people like Daniel Hernandez. That’s what we’re about. Anyone who dares to bash Tucson has to answer to me.”

Boegle said his entire staff has been “in daily-mode” ever since the shooting. “We’re just breaking news as it comes in, but we can put things context.” As an example he says that Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who in a press conference lashed out against the “vitriolic rhetoric” in TV and radio, had previously voiced those same frustrations to the Weekly.

He brushed aside any notion that being an alternative newsweekly should change the approach to covering the crisis. “Here you are, and all these people in the community are coming to you for info. When you’re in that situation, labels fall out the window. All you’re trying to do is help inform everyone.”

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