Texas weekly mobilizes staff to cover church shooting

December 28, 2017

By Stanley Schwartz
Managing Editor | Publishers’ Auxiliary
FLORESVILLE, TX—It was shaping up to be another quiet, ordinary Sunday in November for Wilson County News Editor Nannette Kilbey-Smith.
She was attempting to scrub the skunk smell off her dog when she noticed that her phone was clamoring for her attention. Several people had been trying to reach her, asking if she’d heard about what was going on at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. Local residents had been posting on Facebook about an active shooter—and casualties were high.
“I live just five minutes from the church,” she said during a recent phone interview. She and the weekly’s staff had covered a local event the day before, and they were enjoying a day off. “My first thought,” she added, “was to reach out to my team.”
There are four people on the editorial side of the paper who cover the local news, including Kilbey-Smith. Two of the reporters live in the county. The third lives just outside of the paper’s coverage area. It wasn’t long before Kilbey-Smith learned the extent of the casualties. It was then she decided to notify everyone on the weekly’s staff.
“We were going to need all hands on deck,” she said. They had covered shootings before—from a crime in progress at a local store or an argument that had gone bad—but nothing like what they were facing now. A man wearing black tactical gear had opened fire on the church and its parishioners; at least 26 were dead with an estimated 20 wounded.

Small Community
Sutherland Springs is a small community about 20 miles from San Antonio. Population is about 600, so everyone was either related to or knew someone at the church that day. Not even the paper was immune to the devastation. A former Wilson County News employee had been killed during the shooting.
“It was personal for us.”
Kilbey-Smith headed directly to church while mobilizing her staff.
“We needed everyone on the ground,” she said. The weekly editor resolved that she would do everything she could to keep the citizens informed about what had taken place and what would come next. She did a quick, live report from the scene using Facebook.
“I did it on the fly,” she explained, as she walked the crime scene perimeter.
She was also up against a tight deadline. The weekly’s next issue was scheduled to go to press the next day. Even with a short deadline, Kilbey-Smith and her staff were able to get an issue done and to the press on time. They also have a collaboration with the one of the local TV stations to share stories.
“My staff is not big enough to do the 24/7 coverage all by itself,” she said. Teaming with the TV station afforded them continued coverage. They would also supplement the print product by posting stories on the paper’s website.

Emotional impact
In a small community like this—where everyone knows each other—covering a tragedy this large would take some effort. Kilbey-Smith knew they were going to be talking with the survivors and friends, families and neighbors of the survivors, who were in shock at the overwhelming loss to the community. The weekly’s staff had to deal their own grief while doing interviews.
“It was difficult to do,” she said. “And it continues to be difficult.” Big media had arrived in droves. Cameras and microphones were in people’s faces as law enforcement and other first responders were hard at work. Kilbey-Smith noted that one of the writers from the Dallas Morning News had recently published an apology to the folks in Sutherland Springs for the added emotional stress from the media.
“The population essentially doubled in just a few hours,” Kilbey-Smith said. They had to truck in portable toilets because of the long lines at local filling stations.
“It was overwhelming, and quite a strain on the community,” she added. “These are our friends and neighbors, who are trying to figure out how to deal with this new normal.” Weeks after the shooting, most of them were just starting to come out of their initial fog. Even first responders were finally able to start dealing with their emotions. They, too, are part of the community, and had to help the victims and process the crime scene where their friends and neighbors lay dead and wounded.

The local coverage
Knowing that the other media would only be around for a short while, Kilbey-Smith said she wanted the community to know that the Wilson County News and its sister paper, the La Vernia News, would be there for them. In addition to covering the main story about the shooting, they also tracked down resources about grief counseling, directing those in need to the services that could help them.
“I wanted that information in print, so the community would always know where to find it,” she said. She also wanted the local people to know that she and her staff were there to listen to them when they were ready to talk. “This is where we live, where we work and where we worship,” she added. She let the community know that she and her staff were there to stay.
Early on, she and her staff had made the decision to focus their coverage on the survivors and the families of the victims, not on the shooter—Devin Patrick Kelly. They rarely used his name in their coverage.
The devastation he wrought was bleak, Kilbey-Smith wrote: “On Sunday night, 26 were dead, 20 wounded. Among those killed were three generations of one family—an expectant mother, three of her children, her brother-in-law and his infant child, and her father-in-law and mother-in-law. The youngest victim was 18 months old, the oldest, 72.
“Among the wounded and dead were students from Floresville and La Vernia, grandparents, parents, and more.”
Unique visitors to the paper’s website jumped significantly during this time, she added.
She and her staff tag-teamed at the crime scene, so they had continuous coverage. The people doing the coverage would feed the information back to those at newspaper, so they wouldn’t miss anything.
Even the paper’s stringers came in to help with the coverage.
“We used them for the prayer vigils,” she said. “Everyone was wonderful. It took everyone doing what they do, to get the coverage needed.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbot arrived, and the paper’s staff had plenty of news conferences they needed to cover. Having everyone step up the way they did made a huge difference in how well Kilbey-Smith and the others on staff were able to cover the shooting.
The Wilson County News averages about 42 pages a week, and the La Vernia News runs about 16 pages weekly. They cover the entire county and extend somewhat into the five counties surrounding Wilson.

Holiday Approaching
Coverage of the shooting continued weeks after that day. The last funeral was the weekend before Thanksgiving. Kilbey-Smith thought it almost surreal having to write about Black Friday and Thanksgiving, while the community was still burying the victims.
She wanted to make sure her staff were OK, too, holding meetings almost every day. She encouraged them to seek out grief counseling if they needed it. She said the staff at the two papers were doing fairly well. They were keeping tabs on each other so they could get through this.
“This is the finest bunch of people I’ve ever worked with,” she said.
She was looking forward to taking a short holiday break for Thanksgiving.
“It will be good to have some down time,” she added, hoping the time off would be restorative.

Continued Coverage
They continue to write about those who were killed, the survivors and the church. In December, the weekly will also work on a story about the hospital where most of the victims were taken.
“They’ve had training on dealing with mass casualties,” Kilbey-Smith said. “We want to know how did it work in reality.”

Mystery Message
At one point, someone had dropped off a note written on a guest check from the Mexican restaurant next to the paper’s office. In the note was also a gift card to the restaurant.
“The only thing on the check was a phone number,” Kilbey-Smith said. She went next door and questioned the owner, who speaks little English. The owner just pointed at the phone number.
“I called the number. It went to the office of the weekly Newtown Bee in Connecticut.”
The staff at the Connecticut paper had faced a similar challenge in 2012, when a gunman killed 20 students and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Kilbey-Smith learned that the paper’s staff had pooled their money and contacted the Floresville Chamber of Commerce in order to locate a nearby restaurant. The gift card paid for breakfast for the Wilson County Times staff for two days. “We had breakfast tacos.
“They wanted us to know that they know what it’s like to cover such a tragedy,” she said. The Bee staff also sent notes of encouragement for their journalism brethren in Texas.
stan@nna.org

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