Live from Boston: A marathon of coverage

Boston bombings mobilize WBUR, WGBH

By Dru Sefton

Edgar B. Herwick III, a features reporter for WGBH, was enjoying his field assignment on that cool, sunny Monday, interviewing runners as they triumphantly crossed the finish line of the April 15 Boston Marathon.

The 26.2-mile race takes place on Patriots’ Day, a statewide holiday commemorating the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775. In downtown Boston, along the route on Boylston Street, “it’s always celebratory — a big, fun civic party,” Herwick said. “Bars are open, people are hanging out.”

WGBH reporter Edgar Herwick, left, was among a phalanx of Boston pubcasters covering the aftermath of the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings. After reporting from the marathon, the next day he interviewed local Pastor Rob Davis, a marathon runner who led an April 16 prayer service near the race starting line in Hopkinton. (Photo: James Edwards, WGBH)

WGBH reporter Edgar Herwick, left, was among a phalanx of Boston pubcasters covering the aftermath of the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings. After reporting from the marathon, the next day he interviewed local Pastor Rob Davis, a marathon runner who led an April 16 prayer service near the race starting line in Hopkinton. (Photo: James Edwards, WGBH)

Herwick was “the eyes and ears and voice on the ground,” as he said, for Boston Public Radio, the noon to 2 p.m. talk show on WGBH-FM. He did a number of live check-ins with audio of exhausted yet jubilant athletes, a few of the 26,000 participants from around the world, each with a unique story of triumph. “Every single person coming across the line is applauded — and they are crossing every second,” he said. “The applause never stops.”

Herwick finished his live reporting by 2 p.m., and was “hanging around the area, taking photos, collecting stuff for the web, just soaking in the atmosphere.” He moved one block over to Newberry Street, which runs parallel to Boylston, and was pondering whether to head back to the station.

Then he heard an explosion.

Herwick was puzzled: He thought maybe someone shot a cannon to honor a runner’s finish. But then — he heard another massive percussion.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, those are bombs.’”

The dual blasts signaled the beginning of an intensely challenging local news story for the 30-member newsroom of WGBH and some 60 news staffers at WBUR in Boston — a terrorist attack that traumatized their city during a moment of great civic pride and placed it at the center of an international news event. At each of the two stations, two miles apart near the heart of Boston, radio, TV and digital staffers quickly pulled together to help keep listeners and viewers informed and calm, while at the same time testing their own journalistic and physical limits.

Reporting by public media’s Boston-based journalists was beamed live over SiriusXM and transmitted nationwide over the World multicast channel. Editors tossed out entire days of programming and scheduled on the fly. Managers balanced fears for their staffs’ safety with the need to inform the public. Reporters and show hosts struggled to keep unverified rumors off the air. Classical music programmers decided to forego underwriting announcements and put great care into selecting compositions to calm a region mired in panic and sadness.

And they did it all on scant sleep, lots of junk food and with a fraction of the resources of their commercial media counterparts.

In the end, looking back, “our instincts worked well,” said Linda Polach, executive producer for WGBH’s public affairs television show Greater Boston.

“Covering the story takes its toll,” she said. “It’s so close to so many of us on so many levels. The adrenaline kicks in and you work as hard as you can and at some point you sit back and think, ‘Wow,’ and you’re exhausted and emotionally spent.”

Monday: Breaking-news chaos

Back at the race, Herwick felt the second explosion “reverberate in my body. I instinctively ran toward the sound.”

He saw and smelled smoke. A massive crowd of people suddenly bolted toward him, “screaming and crying. It was clear something awful happened. Some were panicked; others had this faraway look like they were in shock.”

“I immediately got my tape going and started talking to people.”

At WGBH, Boston Public Radio had wrapped up its broadcast and Ted Canova, executive editor for news, was still in the studio. When he heard initial reports, he sat down in the anchor chair. “I haven’t been on the air for many, many years,” he said. “It was definitely out of the ordinary, but in a breaking news situation, everyone who could add information or perspective was called to service.”

Sam Fleming, WBUR’s managing director of news and programming, was in a car returning from a funeral in Harrisburg, Pa., heading to Washington, D.C., for meetings at NPR next day. When he heard about the bombings from a producer, “I literally made 30 calls from the car. I was calling everybody I could think of.” Within half an hour, 40 or more staffers had arrived at the station.

Fleming called Kathleen McKenna, senior producer of Here & Now, the national midday newsmag. “I told her, ‘We need to get somebody in there. Take over the studio — commandeer it.’” Reporter Deborah Becker went on the air at 3, filling in for a staffer who had taken the day off. Becker anchored coverage until 11 p.m.

Newsrooms at both WBUR and WGBH were short-staffed on the holiday, and had to grapple with multiple unknowns in coverage that aired immediately following the bombing: Who were the perpetrators and what were their motives? How many victims had been killed or injured?

Were there additional bombs?

Was the city itself under attack?

WGBH’s news managers “put pressure on restraint” in cautioning staff not to repeat any unverified facts, Canova said. “We made it clear that we would not report rumors.” During one debriefing, a reporter wanted to explore the rumor mill as a sidebar. “I interrupted because I didn’t want to repeat rumors even while talking about them as being untrue,” he said.

John Davidow, executive editor digital at WBUR, also made restraint a priority for the station’s online coverage.

“Online and broadcast are two very different animals, and this is when it becomes more apparent,” he said. “On the air, as you’re covering the story, you can be reactive, fluid and responsible.” Not so much online. “We needed to know where we got the information, how it was confirmed. There’s a big signal-to-noise ratio in a story like this. We were clean throughout — that’s an extraordinary accomplishment.”

At Classical New England, WGBH’s sister station WCRB, Managing Director Ben Roe was just coming off the air, “doing the boss thing, covering an air shift so somebody else could enjoy the holiday.” First reports were “a scramble of uncertainty,” he said. He began providing updates with information coming from the WGBH newsroom.

Polach and the Greater Boston team started gearing up to do a live show at 7 p.m. “We had to get all the technical people, the guests, video — while we were still getting the story,” she said.

Just last summer, WGBH moved its radio, television and digital news staffs into one combined newsroom. “We’re still figuring out how to maximize the potential of everybody on the staff, with their different skill sets,” Polach said. “There’s confusion in the immediate moments after a terrorist attack, then everybody put their nose to the ground and started doing what we do.” All reporting was shared across platforms.

But on the day of the bombing, information became harder to pin down. Cell service in central Boston was shut down due to overwhelming call volume; Herwick walked across the bridge into Cambridge to try for better reception and charge his phone. Back at WGBH’s headquarters, Canova started using Twitter, which was more accessible than voice service, to reach reporters.

Canova was also still on the air. “By 4 p.m. we had wall-to-wall coverage,” he said. He and local All Things Considered host Jordan Weinstein anchored, with reports over the phone from Callie Crossley (host of Under the Radar), arts editor Jared Bowen, Emily Rooney (host of Greater Boston) and Margery Eagan (a Boston Public Radio co-host hired in February from local commercial radio WTTK).

On WBUR.org, Tiffany Campbell, digital managing editor, was supervising a seven-person staff, “doing our own storytelling in digital, pulling great audio pieces from the air, pairing them with visuals.” Davidow said the effort was collaborative with the newsroom, yet supplementary. “Radio is not worrying about pictures,” he said.

Kristen Holgerson, WBUR spokesperson, said other pubradio stations started picking up WBUR’s news coverage from its web stream around 1 p.m. By 7 p.m., the station had set up a subscription feed through PRSS’s Content Depot.

At the same time, WBUR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook went live with special coverage that was carried by 44 stations.

Thirteen stations, including WAMU in Washington, D.C., and New York Public Radio’s WNYC, picked up WBUR’s live coverage throughout the week.

On Classical New England, Roe had made the decision to carry only soothing, contemplative pieces of music. “As everyone was coming to terms with this, we wanted to be a calm place where people could go,” he said. The staff of seven selected pieces such as “Prayer of St. Gregory” by Alan Hovhaness, Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres” and Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia.”

“One great thing about classical programming,” Roe said, “is it gives people a place to process and digest sometimes unfathomable news.”

Midweek: The tense calm

Herwick returned to WGBH Tuesday morning pondering his next story. “There still wasn’t a lot of information, or even suspect names,” he said. “The community was still grappling with what was going on.” He decided to drive the entire 26.2-mile marathon route to look for new angles with reporter James Edwards.

They found one at the starting line, in a small park near the corner of Main and Ash streets in Hopkinton. Local Pastor Rob Davis of the Vineyard Church of Hopkinton, who had run the race the day before, was conducting a small prayer service.

Two hours after the Boston Marathon bombing, a firefighter directs a runner to a safe meeting area. (Photo: Joe Spurr for WBUR)

Two hours after the Boston Marathon bombing, a firefighter directs a runner to a safe meeting area. (Photo: Joe Spurr for WBUR)

“For me,” Herwick said, “that was emblematic, in a poignant way, of how people were trying to get their heads around what happened. Here was a man of faith, and a runner, dealing with a conflict inside him: the human response of getting angry, which won’t help. And the pastoral response of needing to seek solace and peace.”

Farther along the route, near the finish line, Herwick and Edwards found another meaningful image: “A college kid on a saxophone, with a silver race blanket tied around his neck, playing this beautiful, mournful rendition of the National Anthem.” Edwards captured pictures of both.

That night, Greater Boston expanded from its usual 30-minute showtime to an hour and was distributed nationally at 9 p.m. Eastern time to 68 stations, reaching nearly 60 percent of the nation on World, a digital channel that repackages public TV news and documentary programming for local stations’ multicast channels. World would carry WGBH’s local TV news show twice that week.

By Wednesday, newsrooms at both Boston stations were facing a lull in news developments, as law enforcement officials worked the investigation. “We had to figure out hour-to-hour how to keep going,” Fleming said. “We didn’t want to go wall-to-wall with nothing to say. We were doing specials, an hour here and there, because it still didn’t seem right to run lots of regular programs.”

WBUR.org’s content-vertical websites were digging into various angles of the story. On CommonHealth, a blog devoted to health-care policy, stories focused on coping with the aftermath of amputation, and a psychiatrist discussed how to talk about the bombing with children. “That got an amazing amount of traffic,” Davidow said, “It was clearly useful to audiences throughout the state.”

Over the week, WBUR.org had 902,287 unique visitors, almost what it receives in an entire month.

Throughout the week, reporters from both WBUR and WGBH were called upon to contribute to national and international programs as well. WGBH journalists appeared on PBS NewsHour, The World and All Things Considered, and on international networks such as CBC, BBC and Radio France Internationale. At WBUR, 13 reporters contributed to NPR’s news coverage.

Friday: A dangerous manhunt

Martha Bebinger, who covers health care for WBUR, was perusing Twitter late Thursday night just before midnight, when she noticed a tweet about a policeman shot at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. She figured the newsroom wasn’t staffed at that point, so she made a mental note to keep an eye on the situation — just in case.

About that same time, Fleming got a call at home from Tom Melville, WBUR executive editor for content, about the shooting. “At that point, neither of us thought it had anything to do with the bombings,” Fleming said.

Bebinger soon spied a tweet about a carjacking near MIT. She had a gut feeling something was up. She contacted Melville at home.

By 1 a.m., Melville called Fleming. “All hell was breaking loose in Watertown,” Fleming said; police were in a shootout with suspects they had identified late Thursday afternoon.

Fleming headed to WBUR and telephoned Bob Oakes, the local Morning Edition host, to come in early — but he lives over an hour away. By then, Bebinger was in the studio. “I told her, ‘We have to start this now.’” She went on live at 3 a.m.

“I remember a weird feeling,” Bebinger said, “looking at the clock at 3 a.m. and thinking, ‘Who is listening, and what are they thinking?’”

At the same time, Canova was working from home for WGBH. Shortly after 1 a.m., reporters James Edwards and Phillip Martin were on the scene in Watertown.

Canova kept track of the chaotic night in a small notebook, drawing a clock next to major developments to track his actions. “Without this as reference, it would all be a blur,” he said.

From 1 to 3 a.m., Canova posted updates on Twitter from home and participated in reporter debrief interviews for BBC morning news shows in Britain. He joined WGBH morning host Bob Seay in the studios for live coverage that opened at 4:30 a.m. with a press conference. “During that time, police believed they were close to an arrest,” Canova said. In a series of news conferences throughout the next few hours, local authorities announced that all mass transit had been suspended, and they asked residents of five Boston communities to stay indoors. At 7:59 a.m., officials confirmed that one suspect was dead and announced that the manhunt was expanding. The entire city of Boston was under lockdown.

Polach awoke to media reports of police instructing Bostonians to remain indoors.

“How could I ask staff to come in when police and the governor were telling everyone to stay home because it was a dangerous situation?” she said.

Polach decided to see if she could get to the station; she arrived just as a Boston police officer was instructing staffers to lock the doors. “At that point, they feared they had a guy on the loose with a bomb strapped to his chest,” she said.

Once inside, “I really wrestled with questions about everyone’s safety, but at the same time I knew we had to get this story,” Polach said. Eventually, she asked staffers to come in, but only if they felt they could do so safely.

WBUR was coping with another challenge. Robin Young, Here & Now host, discovered that she personally knew one of the suspects, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was a friend of her nephew’s. “She came in at 5 a.m.,” Fleming said, “We put her in the booth and got her on the air. Everybody heard about it and the media came screaming in” for interviews.

Young and her nephew spoke on NPR’s Morning Edition and the BBC. “But what’s interesting was, it ended up being very difficult for the Here & Now staff because there were so many media requests they couldn’t concentrate on producing their own show,” Fleming said.

On Friday morning, Roe and his team decided to drop underwriting and sponsor spots from Classical New England broadcasts. “We wanted as few interruptions as possible, and it was not appropriate to be talking about raising money,” he said. For 48 hours, “we stayed live and local,” receiving thanks from grateful listeners for the thoughtful programming.

Also on Friday, WBUR’s Fleming received a call from satellite radio SiriusXM. Programmers there wanted to replace their NPR national channel with WBUR’s live feed. Fleming gave permission, and the satellite provider carried WBUR’s news coverage for five hours, from 4 to 9 p.m., breaking once to run Marketplace.

Content Depot reported that 33 stations subscribed to WBUR’s special coverage that day.

Managers at both stations were concerned about staff who had been working nonstop. Curt Nickisch, a WBUR business reporter, was up 36 hours straight. “I never went to bed on Thursday,” he said. Nickisch worked through the entire frenzied news cycle of the manhunt, until 10:30 Friday night, an hour after the second suspect was finally captured.

As Herwick said, “I’ve been surprised at myself, I haven’t wanted to let go. I wanted to be out there.”

People were “working 13-, 15-hour days for over a week,” Polach said. “It was exhausting. Mentally and physically I feel like I gained 5 pounds. At one point, we ate nothing but Fritos because there just wasn’t any food around. It was that or pizza.”

“It’s extraordinary what can be accomplished on Red Bull and Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkins,” said Davidow, digital head at WBUR.

The aftermath: When does ‘normal’ return?

Now, days later, surviving suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is in custody, recovering from gunshot wounds. Downtown Boston has reopened and life is slowly returning to some semblance of normality for the news staffs and the people of their city.

“We are having conversations about returning to other news coverage,” WGBH’s Canova said during an April 23 interview. There’s a statewide primary election and stories that couldn’t run during the bombing frenzy, such as a series on consumer scams. “We’ll top that with scams to watch out for in fundraising for victims,” he said.

Bostonians created a makeshift memorial of running shoes on Boylston Street on April 24, the day when the site of the bombings was reopened for public use. (Photo: Howard Powell, WGBH)

Bostonians created a makeshift memorial of running shoes on Boylston Street on April 24, the day when the site of the bombings was reopened for public use. (Photo: Howard Powell, WGBH)

But last week, few other topics were on the story whiteboard in WGBH’s newsroom, Canova said. The public is still focused on the bombings and their aftermath: There are memorial services to cover, a continuing law-enforcement investigation, injured victims who are starting the long road to rehab.

“Every Friday night we’ll exhale and take the pulse of the public and the newsroom, and look at developments and reflect on that through the weekend,” Canova said. “And each Monday for several weeks, we’ll be having editorial discussions on what else to report and when.”

On WGBH’s talk shows, hosts are asking listeners: What should we do? “Some people can’t get enough of the story,” Polach said, “while others want to hear about other things.”

Over at WBUR, Fleming is pondering the same thing. “There’s still a ton of work to do, but it’s starting to feel like more of a normal story to cover,” he said. “I just wish we had more reporters, there are so many angles. The community is still reeling. They’re relieved, but now it’s, ‘Wow, what just happened?’”

As for WGBH reporter Edgar Herwick, he’s pursuing a story on an odd sensation that stuck with him while covering the bombing. “Almost universally, everyone we talked to described what they were feeling as surreal — like in a movie,” he said. He’s interviewing a neurologist and psychologist about what happens emotionally when a community experiences such extraordinary trauma and stress.

“Coverage is shifting,” Herwick said. “Now we move to a deeper level.”

Questions, comments, tips? sefton@current.org
This article was first published in Current, April 29, 2013.
Correction: This story contains corrected material that differs from the April 29 print version. Callie Crossley is host of Under the Radar, not Greater Boston.
  • http://www.facebook.com/aaronreadwork Aaron Read

    Speaking of not reporting rumors…cell service in Boston was never “shut off”. That was a rumor that was later debunked the same day. It was simply a case of massive overload by too many people trying to use it at the same time.

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