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Finding Lauren: IDS summer staff gets a national story

In Design, IDS, Multimedia, Uncategorized on June 30, 2011 at 5:33 pm

Four weeks, seven P1s, hundreds of Tweets and Facebook updates later, and the Lauren Spierer story is starting to fade.

With daily searches and press conferences ending, it seems a fitting time to take a look at how the IDS has covered an important local story that took off nationally.

First and foremost, the entire IDS summer staff deserves kudos. Their coverage began on idsnews.com the day after Spierer went missing and continued both online and in the daily print edition through to the end. They were at every press conference and every search.

Today, the paper led with this story by Alex Farris, who also did video and photography during the IDS’s coverage of Lauren.

ALEX FARRIS (IDS)

On the last day of general public searches for missing IU student Lauren Spierer, volunteer Jeff Ritter kept doing what he had done for more than a week.

“Every place we look is a place that’s been searched and a place we can cross off the list,” he said.

About 20 other volunteers, with help from professional searchers, brought an end to broad-based searches for the 20-year-old IU student, who has been missing since June 3.

Other notable coverage was written by CJ Lotz, Sarah Brubeck, summer Region Editor Zach Ammerman and summer Editor-in-Chief Brooke Lillard.

Lotz covered much of the early breaking news and wrote features about the Spierer family and the community response.

CJ LOTZ (IDS)

Before the national news paid attention, before Ryan Seacrest tweeted about Lauren, before the press conferences and the search parties, Robert Spierer taped up a picture of his daughter.

At 9:45 a.m. Sunday, he walked into Smallwood Plaza. He looked at his daughter’s face smiling under the words “Missing.” A roll of masking tape on his arm, he stuck another piece along the side of the white paper and rubbed it down against a lobby door in Smallwood.

He talked about Lauren, the younger of his two daughters, who loves fashion and talks to her mother every day.

He couldn’t have anticipated how huge this story would become. In the next few days, millions of people would see his daughter’s face.

In an email, Lotz discussed what the small summer staff learned covering a national story, something that doesn’t usually happen to this scale in Bloomington.

The IDS team has learned a lot on this story. 1. Get there first. We were there from the beginning. 2. Don’t push when it’s not appropriate. We watched broadcasters push microphones in the Spierer’s faces when it was totally wrong. We wanted to step back and respect what was unfolding, and dig in other ways. 3. Read Brook Lillard’s letter from the editor about why we aren’t reporting rumors.

The editorial in question ran on the front page of the IDS and drew a lot of flak from commenters on idsnews.com.

BROOKE LILLARD (IDS)

Since the day the police notified the press of Lauren Spierer’s disappearance, the Indiana Daily Student has worked tirelessly to tell you everything we know about the case.

The coverage is not for our benefit, it is for Lauren and our readers.

Are the commenters right in this case, or was it an appropriate editorial to run on P1?

We also saw some nice things come out from Christa Kumming and her design team. This timeline map did a great job consolidating the large amount of information coming out from BPD in the immediate aftermath of Lauren’s disappearance.

CHRISTA KUMMING (IDS)

And after putting together front pages about the search for weeks, it must’ve gotten difficult to be creative, but this front in particular (John Lindgren’s first P1) took three stories about a two-week-old topic and made them look more than appetizing.

JOHN LINDGREN (IDS)

Any mention about the Lauren Spierer coverage would not be complete without talking about the online coverage, especially on the social media side of things. The Twitter campaign to #FindLauren has been noticed by everyone from Tom Cruise to USA TODAY.

Especially in regard to the anonymous tweeter @NewsOnLaurenS. In under a month, @NewsOnLaurenS has received over 25,000 followers. No wonder the IDS tweets on the search all tag @NewsOnLaurenS.

Lotz interviewed the woman behind @NewsOnLaurenS online.

CJ LOTZ (IDS)

Although the user behind @NewsOnLaurenS said she does not want to reveal her identity because it would take the focus off Lauren, she agreed to a “Twitter” interview with the IDS…

@IDSnews: What does your day look like?

@NewsOnLaurenS: I’ve been falling asleep around 2 – 3 a.m. after one last “PUSH” to remind followers to RT (retweet) Lauren’s info.
@NewsOnLaurenS: A few hours later, I wake up, grab my iPhone and update my feed.
@NewsOnLaurenS: Typically, I find an inspiring message to RT to energize myself and our community. Then, it’s off to my regular business day at work.
@NewsOnLaurenS: I’m never too far away from my phone. If my schedule allows, I will tweet through the press conference and occasionally during the day.
@NewsOnLaurenS: In the evening, I continue to strategize and find new ways to inspire those to continue their advocacy work to help #FindLauren.

Although the anonymous tweeter has garnered most of the national publicity, IDS stories are consistently the most shared links on Twitter in conjunction to the Spierer story.

The IDS account (@idsnews) has also ventured into unfamiliar territory for the Twitter account: live-tweeting. In Bloomington, it’s rare that there is a newsworthy reason to live-tweet an event. Sports has from time-to-time, but live-tweeting involves sending a reporter whose sole responsibility is to constantly update in 140 character bursts. Not worth it for the average IDS piece.

The Lauren Spierer story is far from average.

Former web editor Danielle Fleischman has been live tweeting many of the daily press conferences from BPD. She had just gotten back from a School of Journalism trip to Kenya when she began tweeting the story for @idsnews.

It was heartbreaking to see the emptiness of their faces, the absolute lack of hope that surrounded them and it was then that I realized I had seen that look of despair before.  I had seen it in the faces of people in Kenya who struggled to get food on their table or send their kids to school.  And here in the states was that same sort of sorrow I thought I had left a few oceans behind me.    The whole scene brought tears to my eyes, and made it harder to keep tweeting.  In such an instant it’s difficult to rapidly type up quotes and send them off to Facebook/Twitter without much time available for revision.  It begins to feel exploitative, as though all these journalists are doing whatever they can to get the first bit of new information on the web as fast as possible.

The “Indiana Digital Student”, as it were, has also produced some wonderful content strictly for idsnews.com. There is a special page that archives the continuing Spierer coverage that readers can visit straight from the homepage. Videos from the multiple press conferences are available and slideshows are online from the search efforts.

The Spierer story has also given us an excuse to update some multimedia graphics that have been plaguing the IDS. Thanks to former photo editor Alex Farris, we have ditched the obnoxiously long bumper and now have snazzy new title and credit slides.

Title slide

A few months ago, this would have been a big red bar of gross.

Farris has also been completely on top of all things visual with the Spierer story. He even followed IU ROTC members on a search at Griffy Lake through knee-deep mud in shorts and tennis shoes. Now that’s commitment.

My experience with the Lauren Spierer story started very early. I was sent out June 4, the day after Lauren was reported missing, to take photos of fliers that were being posted and passed out. I only took a few photos, but while I was talking with friends at Scholar’s Inn on the square, a woman walked by and handed us some fliers. She asked if we had heard about Lauren, and I said, “Yes, we’re with the IDS. We’re on it.” I thanked her, and then she thanked me.
Being human was not only called for; it was required. Unlike out-of-town newspapers and TV stations, CJ said, we have to answer to our readers after the story dies down. The same people reading the story now will hopefully be following us later, but they won’t follow us if we’re insensitive and not on top of the story. In that sense, we have a higher standard to uphold than outside outlets.
For me, that standard has meant staying up until 5 a.m. following a tip from a source, dropping everything to cover a served search warrant, driving to the south side of Monroe County to take photos of a state police search, and staying with volunteers an entire day on the last day of public searches. It has meant going to every press briefing, photographing every possible search, following every possible lead, and dealing with every possible emotion. I like to think each struggle has not clouded my news judgment; rather, it has sharpened it, keeping me in touch with how the family, friends and readers feel.

Looking back on the coverage, a few questions come to mind. Shouldn’t @idsnews be the first stop for IU news instead of an independent, anonymous account? Yes, the story received national attention, but should we as journalists make the rounds on national cable news networks instead of letting the story speak for itself? What about the page one editorial? The IDS editor rarely publishes the behind-the-scenes work of the IDS or makes a direct statement to readers. These are questions we won’t answer. But let’s start a conversation. Comment below and we can talk about it.

Overall, the summer staff has done a great job with a skeleton crew. It is praiseworthy and it includes some damn fine reporting. Keep up the good work, gang.

UPDATE (July 1, 2011):

Brooke Lillard, IDS summer editor-in-chief, had this to say about the staff’s coverage:

I remember the first day her parents arrived to search for her, readers were calling into the newsroom as though we were a search headquarters. CJ was actually riding in the car with Lauren’s parents and we were texting each other back and forth to figure out where they were going and how people could help them to find there daughter. Once CJ would text me information, I would tweet it out immediately so that those who wanted to help could do so as soon as possible.

It was at this point when I realized how important it was for us to serve as a public service and that this story was only going to get bigger with time.

During the first week or so, three people were doing the work of 10 people. I think that in and of itself demonstrates that drive and dedication can go a long way.

Our relationship with our readers also went to totally different level. In all of my years working for the IDS, I don’t think I’ve ever received one compliment from a reader. Honestly, from looking at our comments, tweets and Facebook posts, it seemed as though the readers viewed us more as a friend informing them as they asked questions. The best compliment I saw came via Twitter, it was a tweet that said something along the lines of “These aren’t just student journalists, these are journalists outrunning other journalists.” We were seeing multiple tweets like this.

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  1. Nice summary. And thank you to everyone on the summer staff. As a recent grad and former staffer, I follow this story more obsessively than most others, I would think. You all have continuously provided me with the information I was looking for while simultaneously making me proud of our school and student media.

    I’d like to address a point raised by CJ and Alex:
    “2. Don’t push when it’s not appropriate. We watched broadcasters push microphones in the Spierer’s faces when it was totally wrong. We wanted to step back and respect what was unfolding, and dig in other ways.”
    “Unlike out-of-town newspapers and TV stations, CJ said, we have to answer to our readers after the story dies down.”

    Other news outlets might have more experience than us, but, as student media, we have an invaluable advantage: Lauren is a fellow student. This seems obvious, but it affects our coverage more than I think we realize. Most importantly, it necessitates a sense of compassion neglected by others.

    Because Lauren is a student who some of us know, or shared the same major with or walked the same streets as, we have a connection. And with that connection comes a sense of responsibility. As journalists, we always want to get it right. To be honest and accurate and present the truth. But when it’s a fellow student, especially a fellow student in a tragic situation, that pressure multiplies tenfold.

    Other news outlets might be crass, but other news outlets don’t have the bond we do with Lauren. That is something to be valued. I know when I covered Gregory’s death last spring, I worked under the most unrelenting self-imposed pressure I’ve ever faced. I was terrified to let down a fellow student. Sometimes, I wondered if it was crippling, but other times, I know that it kept me from making some really dumb decisions (which other media outlets later did).

    I’m just wondering if any of the reporters who worked on this can share their thoughts on what it’s been like to cover this case. How has your status as one of Lauren’s fellow students helped/hindered your work as a journalist, especially compared with professional and national news outlets?

    • Being a student has certainly helped more than hindered the reporting I’ve done. For the simple reason that I still look like a student, I’m able to go on searches and get access that people in a button-up shirt with a cameraman can’t get. The IDS broke the story so early and led it through much of the first week, so we gained a lot of trust with searchers and the parents, which has made future reporting much easier.

      Our proximity has made us be more careful, which sometimes results in news coming out more slowly than with other outlets. As you said, though, that keeps us from making a dumb decision. For that, I wouldn’t call it a hindrance by any means. (I saw your coverage of Gregory from afar, Caitlin, and I’d say you weren’t hindered, either.)

  2. While there was a lot of nice coverage – and a lot of coverage in general, perhaps too much? – I did see a few things in the IDS’ reports that threw me off.

    First, in this post you mention the story about the Behrman’s and how they struggled with the same situation years ago, a great story – no doubt. But at the same time the Lauren Spierer search was at full-head, a Bloomington citizen was murdered in her home and received little to no coverage. Compare these two first stories: http://idsnews.com/news/story.aspx?id=81868&search=holder&section=search and http://www.heraldtimesonline.com/stories/2011/06/08/news.545282.sto

    Yes, the IDS is a student newspaper, but it is also a source that provides IU students and Bloomington residents information about the town where they live. We may not have the same sources as the HT, but that’s not an excuse.

    Second, there were plenty of well-utilized ASFs, but they were limited. I chose this story, but it’s one among numerous: http://idsnews.com/news/story.aspx?id=81850. What additional information is in this story that wasn’t in previous ones? Instead, what if the information was added to a running list of daily updates, an ASF? Quick, easy, to the point.

    And as a final note, (and I don’t mean for this to be a completely bashing comment) I want to remind the summer staff that a student is missing. Facebook and Twitter have been great sources in aiding the search, but they’ve also been ways to brag about the IDS in an unflattering way. Posting statuses with a story in which the IDS is featured and the tag “Another one to show the parents” is self-centered in a case that needs all the care it can get. Please remember that you are informers, not prize winners.

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