They did not stand on the banks with microphone in hand jamming it into the face of an eyewitness: “Did you see any dead bodies?” Most of them have no fancy electronic gear. No cameras. No whirlygigs spinning around on their beanie hats.
They come equipped with the same narrow white spiral bound notebook that I used 30 years ago during my brief journalism career during a decidedly lower tech time. They write their notes on both sides of each sheet and with that capture history one mental snapshot at a time.
During a disaster you sit in front of your TV watching the same images over and over again, waiting for the massive public radio organization about nine miles away in Saint Paul to stop broadcasting “Marketplace” and get someone to the scene. You hear the same information on the TV delivered breathlessly by reporters who are trying their best not to allow themselves to be stunned into silence by the horrific vision behind them. You wait and wait and wait in front of the TV for the newspaper to bounce against your screen door the next day. You know, at least for the moment, there are a dozen actual journalists issuing forth from the newspaper office for every one of their compadres in television and radio.
The newspaper reporters stand back. Their photographers scramble in every direction. The television people — especially those from the networks — elbow their way to the front. TV and even public radio can’t, won’t, tell you what happened. TV and radio can’t put you on those concrete chunks with the survivors following those able to help the injured. TV and radio cannot describe for you what it is like to watch a car slide off the deck into the black waters of the Mississippi River, a trail of bubbles coming to the surface representing a life being snuffed out as you watch helplessly. Asking yourself, how did I survive? They can’t capture all of that because they can’t BE there when it happens. And if they can’t BE there they settle for secondary images. The stories they are telling make very little sense.
The newspaper reporters, an endangered species, study, synthesize, argue with their colleagues and editors, write and occasionally rewrite. Interviewing everyone they can find: survivors, family and friends of survivors, family of the dead and missing. They bring humanity to the enormity of tragedy. And if that were not enough, they take their little narrow notebooks and start trying to find out why it happened. They are everywhere at once. Interviewing every expert and piecing together the puzzle as best they can. Long after this story loses its visual impact and thus the interest of visual media, the little narrow notebook people layer on a little more. Inspections, politics, money, power, public opinion, Congress, special session, NTSB final report. Every day somewhere near the front page we will read about it.
In short order public radio and TV and all of the new media will be building their stories using one secondary source conveniently delivered to them each day.