Behind-the-scenes look at a crazy day

By Lou Brancaccio, Columbian editor

Published:

 
photoLou Brancaccio
photoNews assistant Mary Ricks knows what to do when news breaks.

(/The Columbian)

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‘You’re not Paul.”

When I arrived at The Columbian early Wednesday morning, that’s the way I was greeted … and for good reason.

Dedicated news assistant Mary Ricks needed Paul. And she needed him fast!

Paul, by the way, is Paul Suarez. He’s our early-morning reporter, and one of his main duties is to hunt down breaking news to get fresh information on our website.

Back in the good ol’ days, when the Internet didn’t exist, newspapers had to worry about only one deadline each day, that being when journalists had to quit reporting so their stories could end up on the printing press. Today, reporters literally have dozens of deadlines. That’s because of the living, breathing, constantly changing Web.

But let’s get back to Mary. She is essentially a data gatherer. She goes out and gets all kinds of info from places such as our courthouse. She then grinds that stuff into a usable form so our readers can see it.

Mary also sits about 10 feet from our police scanner. It’s constantly blaring stuff about sidewalk slips, domestic issues and assorted miscreants.

On occasion, the scanner chatter sounds serious. Very serious. That happened Wednesday morning when Mary heard about a fire in Washougal. Then a few seconds later Mary heard “shots fired.”

That was enough for our data gatherer to turn into a first responder on news. Mary needed to track Paul down to make sure he was aware of what was going on.

The immediate goal was not only to get Paul on the scene but also to get him a camera. Yes, you guessed it, in addition to being Web experts, reporters now are also photographers.

Mary had contacted Paul and had a camera in hand to give it to him quickly.

So as I walked into the office around 8 a.m. Mary rushed to the sound of the opening door — only to be disappointed that it was me.

“You’re not Paul,” she accurately noted.

Mary filled me in on what she had heard on the police scanner. Paul showed up a few minutes later. Mary handed him a camera.

And a very hectic day for us began.

• • •

In addition to being a reporter and a photographer, Paul also is typically the person who posts stuff on our website early in the morning. But he had to leave so quickly he couldn’t. So one of our Web folks, Matt Wastradowski, was assigned the task. In a few minutes, our first post was up about something bad happening in Washougal. Later, we found out just how bad: a house burned to the ground, hundreds of shots fired and two dead bodies.

And our job was to report it as it happened. Web users are a very fickle bunch. If they don’t find something they want, they’re gone. They’ll just look elsewhere.

Now, almost by default, local residents will assume that the local newspaper websites will have the best, most current stuff. But if we blow the opportunity, they will go elsewhere. We knew we did well with our initial reports, but we needed updates all day long. And I think we did that.

We added photos from our photographers, but also — thanks to you all — many photos from neighbors near the scene who sent them to us.

In the end, our typical daily Web traffic was doubled.

The Washougal story continues, and we will stay on it.

So to our staff — and those community members who helped us — thank you!

Lou Brancaccio is The Columbian’s editor. Reach him at 360-735-4505 or lou.brancaccio@columbian.com.