GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

October 20, 2012

Why Did My Newspaper Do That? Finding instant quake reactions very close to home

Why Did My Newspaper Do That? Ray Lamont
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — I have never felt an earthquake — and still haven’t, despite the magnitude 4.0 tremor beneath the surface of Maine that shook and rattled more than a few homes and businesses for a few seconds in Gloucester and across Cape Ann Tuesday night.

Yes, I was working here at the Times office. And within seconds of the earthquake, I was very aware of what had happened — or what we thought had happened. But while others had heard the quake’s rumble, and especially noticed that their computers were shaking, I had not been looking at mine, had been talking to someone else – and, of course, missed the whole thing.

We did, however, have a couple “eyewitnesses” close at hand. Community Editor Joann Mackenzie and Advertising Representative Laura Ingalls both let out low shouts. Sports Editor Nick Curcuru heard the rumble that, indeed, sounded like another MBTA train rolling with a few feet of our Whittemore Street offices, as they do every day. And no more than a minute after Joann and Laura had both exclaimed that they thought we had had an earthquake, TV and online news reports out of Boston were already reporting the same thing.

Recognizing we had to jump on the story as well, I thought quickly about how to approach it — especially since the quake came around 7:15 at night, and we were already steamrolling toward deadline. We quickly talked to our page design and production folks, and pulled back one story from the top left corner of Page 1 for another day, with plans for the quake story to fill that spot in an hour or two. But what WAS our local earthquake story, especially since it was apparent from news reports and our police scanner that there had been no injuries or damage.

There’s an old adage in journalism that a newspaper or other media outlet should stick to covering the story, not be part of it. Yet, if you saw both our online breaking news story that night on gloucestertimes.com, or our first-day story in Wednesday morning’s Times, you probably noted that the first local story focuses on our own staffers — and on a report from Gloucester firefighter Phil Bouchie, who noted that the quake was felt loud and clear at the all-brick Central Fire Station, and that it had set off emergency alarms all across the city.

Was it necessary to include staffers Joann and Laura in our news story? Why didn’t we seek out other witnesses? Why, in other words, did your community’s newspaper cover the earthquake as it did. Why did your community’s newspaper do that?

Well, we didn’t rush out to seek other witnesses because, frankly, we were looking at gathering all of the story information, writing it, editing it and sending it to the page within, by then, about 90 minutes. And there weren’t any other writers to be doing the gathering; of our two reporters on that night, Marjorie Nesin was covering the meeting of the Rockport selectmen, and Steven Fletcher was at the American Legion hall, covering the Beauport Gloucester Fort neighborhood meeting that, for all I knew, could have generated a few tremors of its own.

Joann and Laura, however, certainly noticed and felt the impact of the earthquake, and could describe as well as anyone what they saw and heard. And their recollections, combined with Bouchie’s comments about the firehouse, made for a very viable story.

Was it ideal? No. Ideally, with time and more flexibility, we would have talked to a lot more people, and gotten more input as to how the earthquake — pegged first at a magnitude of 4.6 that night — was felt so extensively here. Those questions and interviews would be left to Steven to follow up next-day, when he spoke to several other residents who described what they felt and heard, and gleaned from local geologist Arthur Socolow that granite — which runs throughout Cape Ann’s terrain —actually carries earthquake vibrations more than other materials.

But, for all the old adages about our need to cover, and not be part of, any story, the truth is, our own employees had as good a perspective on what had just happened as anyone else. And that justifiably made them an important part of the first night story about this rare natural event.

As always, let me know what you think.

Questions? Comments? Is there an issue you’d like to see addressed in a future column? Contact Times Editor Ray Lamont at 978-283-7000, x3438.