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Barry Schrader
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I writing this column for the following newspaper:

  • Daily Chronicle : DeKalb County Life

The Articles started December 2007.

 

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The Daily Chronicle newsroom in crisis mode

By Barry Schrader.................................February 11, 2009

It was 3 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2008, and the Daily Chronicle news operation had wound down for the day; most of the staff either out on assignment or headed home. But what happened that day and hour will remain seared into the memories of everyone connected with the Chronicle, and I assume many others in the DeKalb area and on the Northern Illinois University campus, for the rest of their lives.
I wasn’t there to witness the tension and emotion that ran so high that day, but two weeks later decided there should be a permanent record of the tragic events, so asked the staff if I could interview each of them on video as an oral history project. Some of them were in their first jobs as professional journalists, about the same age as the older students at NIU.
It was a very emotional and shocking experience for everyone involved, whether inside that newsroom or out at the campus where the shootings took place. I wanted to capture the feelings and reactions of those closest to the events as things unfolded. The tapes will be turned over to the NIU archives and Joiner History Room where they can be perused by future journalists and historians.
Now, as I replay those interviews and recall those horrendous hours and days, I realized that nearly half of those news people interviewed have either left DeKalb for other jobs or changed careers. I wonder how much the impact of that day had on their decisions to move on.
One of the most succinct statements was given to me in writing by then Chronicle production superintendent, Bruce Bieritz, a 29-year newspaper veteran, who recalled it this way:
“Anyone in the newspaper business lives for days like today (Feb. 14). While being tragic in nature, the events of today are in itself exhilarating in nature from a news standpoint ... To be sitting in the editorial area when this tragic event unfolded was one of the most impressive things I have ever seen.
“Reporters being quickly dispatched out to cover the story. The editor standing up in the middle of the newsroom asking for help from (anyone in all departments) typing to answering the phones. Everyone’s response was tremendous.
“Within the next couple of hours, we had planned out an early press run for the Friday paper with a midnight start. Reporters started coming back in to get the stories written and then heading back out again. Anyone who was in the building was volunteering for anything they could do.
“Like a general in battle, Jim (former editor Jim Bowey – now in Minnesota teaching college students) led his troops, barking out instructions to keep everyone moving to a common goal. Calling meetings at 6 (p.m.) to keep everyone updated on deadlines of the day and again at 7 to thank the troops for their efforts and offer some comfort for those who had seen some emotional things in the coverage of such a tragic story ...”
My interviews included seven of the news staffers most closely involved in handling the crisis coverage. Two others found it too emotional to talk about and declined interviews. I can sympathize with them. But those who did talk were Bowey, city editor Kate Schott, news editor Inger Koch, photographers Eric Sumberg and Kate Weber, reporters Dana Herra (now assistant city editor), Carrie Frillman and Benji Feldheim.
As it happened, the first reports came via the police scanner – a staple in newsrooms across the country.
Reporter Benji Feldheim recalled that they first realized something serious had happened when the word “shotgun” jumped out at them from the scanner chatter, then “shooting at NIU,” followed by a jumble of other messages that had him grabbing for his notebook and small recorder as the editors dispatched him to campus.
By a stroke of luck for the newspaper, one of the staff photographers, Eric Sumberg, was already at NIU in the Campus Recreation Center on assignment. Reached on his cell phone, he went running down toward the center of campus with his camera gear, ignoring his car parked nearby. Reporter Dana Herra was driving down Normal Road heading home at the end of her work day when she was reached by cell phone and immediately headed the car toward campus, parked and began walking toward the Holmes Student Center.
Meanwhile, in Sycamore, photographer Kate Weber was just finishing a photo assignment and got the call to head to NIU. And reporter Carrie Frillman had just wrapped up an interview at the Grand Victorian when she got the call – then driving as fast as allowed to reach the campus, but not realizing what lie ahead.
Reactions as they got nearer Cole Hall and saw the horror, blood and chaotic atmosphere:

Eric Sumberg: “Got to the west side of Cole Hall and began talking to students about what had happened. Were bringing victims out of Cole every three or four minutes – didn’t know whether they were alive or dead. I knew every picture was going to count so I took as many as I could. I saw this boy praying and crying outside and took 20 or 30 frames, then talked to him. (That was the photo used on front cover of the Friday special morning edition and went around the country and world on The Associated Press wire service and was used in many papers.) At the Sunday night memorial service, I saw Barack Obama there ... he sat in back on the stage and did not speak, but stayed afterwards to talk with families of the victims.
“I thought my biggest story in DeKalb would be the monster truck accident, until now. This will probably be the biggest story I will cover even if I stay in the field 20 more years.”

Kate Weber: “Parked and went to Neptune Hall, saw Benji who told me there were students being treated down the hall. One student had blood coming from his head and two others were holding a towel on him and comforting him. I took 250 shots on the first disk and maybe another 250 at the press conference later that day. Also, another 250 at the vigil at a nearby church that night. It was really hard for me because these kids were my age. Dealing with the national media horde was a new experience for me; I felt anger at the national media for their heartless behavior.”

Dana Herra: “Parked near campus and walked toward Holmes Student Center. Saw stretchers coming out of Cole and blood on the sidewalk. Bridge to Cole full of police and paramedics. Saw student inside Holmes Center who was shot in the leg, another being loaded into a command vehicle who had been shot in the head. That really threw me and that image stayed with me a long while. (NIU) President Peters did very well. He came out very quickly, was very sympathetic, went to the hospital to be with victims and families, and must have stayed up all night.”

Carrie Frillman: “When I got to campus, I had no idea how extreme it was ... Noticed the blood on the sidewalk. Saw a group of about 50 students gathered outside the police tape and a large number trying to use their cell phones. Then I saw the stretchers coming through. Some of the injured had fled to other buildings. Had an all-access floor pass at the memorial service Sunday but was told we could not interview people inside before or during the ceremony and none of the family members, so I just observed. Met up with Barack Obama and Gov. Blagovich but didn’t think it appropriate to get quotes ... wanted to let them interact with the families.
“Back at the office, the remaining editors had their hands full.”

Inger Koch: “My primary responsibility at first became updating the Chronicle Web page and monitoring the NIU Web for the latest news. Phyllis Johnson shuttled some photo files and video footage back to the office. My job as news editor is designing the main pages, so I designed the front pages the next three days, using big art and big headlines to convey the news of the day. Could only describe the newsroom as chaotic that first night, but other departments’ staffers chipped in to help. I did the front page on 9/11, the biggest story I ever worked on before this.”

Kate Schott: “Eric was on campus. It was ironic we had someone right there. We got three reporters and two photographers onto the campus as soon as possible. I had been at work since 6:30 a.m. and stayed until 12:30 a.m. (Friday morning). We intentionally played down the shooter and placed the story on his identity the following day inside instead of on page one. (Kate is writing a column about the shooting for the Feb. 14 Chronicle.)”

Jim Bowey: “After sending out the reporters, my instinct was to call my wife and get my camera gear over here. But by the time she arrived, I realized my role was as editor now (not as a former freelance photographer) and I stayed in the newsroom. This newsroom will probably never have a story of this intricacy again. This (the campus and community) was a journalism war zone all night with (news) helicopters circling overhead. In the first couple of days, we passed the number of a thousand photos taken. This (news team’s effort) was purpose driven; we wanted to help the community and not just cover the story. There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears behind the stories and type on those pages. My sense is it will always remain a mystery – why a person would do this.”

Benji Feldheim: "When I got to there I found people around campus didn't know what had happened and others didn't believe it. I went inside Neptune and saw a kid with his head bandaged and bleeding. Then I heard a girl crying. Once back outside I saw the blood on my shoes from where I had been walking in Neptune... (Seeing the behavior of the major media) I saw two facial expressions from the students--there was fright and then there was disgust with the disrespectful and ugly displays of the media. At the Sunday memorial service a grad student pointed out it was good to see the curtain fall between town and gown. We must have put together 50 to 70 stories over a two week period (on the shootings). It's an experience I never ever want to go through again..."

Those were some snippets from the more than three hours of oral history interviews preserved on tape and will probably be used for years to come as each anniversary rolls around and the facts of the tragedy are once again brought up in memorial and reflection.”

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Barry Schrader
PO Box 851
DeKalb, Ill 60115