On May 1, Isthmus writer Jason Shepard broke Madison’s biggest story of the year by reporting that Brittney Zimmerman, a UW-Madison student who was murdered in her apartment on April 2, had phoned 911 close to the time of her death. But police were not dispatched because the 911 operator erroneously concluded the call was a mistake (Brittney Zimmerman called 911, but no one came).
Shepard worked on the story for more than two weeks. Isthmus published it on its website at midnight on May 1 and in the print paper which came out later that day, starting around 9 am. Local news radio picked up the story in time for the morning rush hour and Isthmus staffers were thrilled to hear several stations repeatedly credit the paper with breaking the story. Thousands were reading the story online before the paper ever hit the streets.
The 911 Center, operated by Dane County, called a press conference to respond to the story, as did the Madison Police Department. Shepard and Isthmus news editor Bill Lueders fielded calls from all the major local talk shows as well as national outlets, including CBS News and Fox News’ On the Record with Greta Van Susteren.
Isthmus continued to lead the way, filing breaking follow-up stories on TheDailyPage.com throughout Thursday and Friday and in the following week’s paper, beating other outlets that supposedly have access to more resources and technology. TheDailyPage.com experienced record traffic on those two days and above-average traffic in the week that followed. Shepard has made three appearances on Van Susteren’s show.
“It was gratifying to us to be able to break a major story as a weekly paper,” says Lueders, who notes that contradictions in the accounts provided by the 911 Center and Madison police intensified the media interest. “We got the story because Jason Shepard has great sources within the law enforcement community. We were able to stay on top of the story by being authoritative in assessing the official reaction.”
“I think this is a great example of how a news operation can excel in reporting a story using both the traditional print medium and an accompanying website,” says Jason Joyce, Isthmus‘ digital media director. “It’s kind of thrilling to see that alternative weeklies like Isthmus can continue to own the coverage of a big story instead of ceding it to other media.”