It’s rare that I’ll double-dip, but I want to share here a post I wrote for The Oklahoma Daily’s internal critique site. Our student journalists are covering the story of OU freshman Alan Hruby (above, via his Instagram) with financial problems who has allegedly confessed to killing his mother, father and sister to position himself as the sole heir to the family’s money.
It’s a tragic story for the communities touched by it, and it’s a challenging story for the journalists covering it. And I’m proud of their work on it, as I told them today. Here’s what I wrote.
First and foremost, you all should take great pride in the way The Daily’s newsroom rose to the challenge of covering a huge, complex story with sources to pursue in three cities. That’s a degree of difficulty unlike any I faced as a student, and it’s a story that would test even veteran professionals.
You all — led by Blayklee and Joey in Duncan, and Paighten, Ari and Megan here on campus — to put it simply, excelled. For online, you provided a steady drumbeat of updates on the site and via social, you were live with the latest at 2 p.m., you anticipated reader questions and provided answers outside of the normal story frames. As the day progressed you wrote it all through for a detailed, nuanced mainbar and a comprehensive mapped timeline. For print, it all rolled together to make a solid, in-depth package.
There’s nothing like a big, breaking story to galvanize a newsroom and it was such an exciting and wonderful thing to see the energy and passion you all poured into it. I couldn’t be more proud of how you all went after it from very early in the morning to very late at night, and with a monster 24-page Escape to wrestle to the ground in between.
You covered it like pros.
I’m so impressed. By what you achieved in a tough moment that served the OU community well. But even more so for the possibilities it shows we have to reach for going forward.
In that vein, some thoughts to consider:
1. This story isn’t over. It’s just beginning. Give some thought to the big-picture follows you want to pursue, to how you staff this story going forward (the court appearance, for example, falls during winter break), to the arc of coverage that will be required on a topic that very likely will play out beyond this academic year. Think about what records we should request, how to find out if the university followed its protocols, what accountability-oriented questions should be answered. Assuming the confession is valid and holds up, think about the impact on those who knew him, those who lived near him, those who taught him. Think about the issues of finance in the lives of college students today — whether from the frame of a materialistic culture or that of those simply struggling to get by — and how people cope with those matters and what resources are available to guide them. Think about putting this story in context — has another OU student been charged with a crime of this magnitude? Think about whether we should cover the funerals in Duncan. Think about the turn of the screw developments: When is he formally no longer a student? If/when/how that happens? Think about, as Nick has mentioned, what is the policy for students with felonies being admitted. Think about a student possibly facing the death penalty, and how you as student journalists would cover that up to and including a potential execution. Think about whether we need a page like oudaily.com/hruby to be created as an archive for our ongoing work on this subject. Think about how we police the discussion on our comment threads to maintain an appropriate level of discourse. And think, of course, about how we cover the entirety of this story ethically and empathetically for all involved.
No story I imagine you will cover in your career at OU will have as many challenges and complexities in terms of what you need to provide for readers. Also, no story you will cover in your career at OU will give you as many opportunities to grow and stretch yourselves as journalists.
Let’s live up to the moment.
2. Online. What did we learn yesterday and how do we build on it? My takeaways:
- Structure. White-boarding a rough roadmap early in the day brought some organization to what otherwise could be chaos given the nature of events. Not everything we framed out came to fruition (it never does, trust me), but it gave us some firm targets to pursue and a structure to guide us. As my old boss Sandy Rowe used to say, “What does success look like?” Think about how to create a culture for this newsroom in which you define that not only on breaking news events like this, but for everything from individual stories to what you stand for as a media entity in the modern era. Build on this success and stretch it to influence all aspects of your journalism.
- Pace. How do we bring that mentality not only to the other big stories that will come up, but to all our coverage to have it translate to a more lively online offering?
- Mentality. Put online first, print second. We consciously shifted to thinking about what we could offer readers at what times of day to keep the site fresh. How do we make that a firmer and more consistently executed part of the newsroom culture?
- Form. We broke traditional story constructs. We set out ambitions for galleries, timelines and live updates. We broke convention — in a way that I felt was handled ethically — with a piece that explained the costs of items on his Instagram page given the overriding influence of money in the case. And we still delivered the traditional elements, and did them all well.
- Places we could do more, potentially: Think about how we could have gotten a dedicated photographer to Duncan. Think about what more we could do with video in such moments. Think about whether we can do more to capture the campus conversation about this story. Think about framing yourselves as experts on the story — because you are — and doing live chats or video standups where you field questions from readers, whether on Twitter or via a platform like CoverItLive that we could embed in the site.
3. Print. Think about what the role of print is in a moment such as this. Some stories have such magnitude that they will be remembered and talked about on campus for years. This is one such story. Did our front page today capture that? In ways, I think it did, and did so well. In other ways, for all our many successes online and in print, I think it could have done better. (Every newsroom, even the nation’s best, can always do better.) The visual offerings were limited, yes. Think about how we shift as a newsroom to get us out of that position we too frequently face. Think about how the headline, perhaps, with a different approach could have better reflected the gravity of the moment. Think about the design elements used — the readability of the map, the visual cues in the timeline — and whether they worked as effectively as possible.
But more than anything, right now, take a moment to think about what you all accomplished as a group.
It was exceptional.
It was educational.
And it’s an exciting glimpse of what’s possible in our future.