Six months after tragedy, community paper helps Newtown to reflect and continue healing

Newtown — Six months ago today, the journalists at the Newtown Bee found themselves in unthinkable territory.

Reporters at the community weekly newspaper rushed to the scene of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings that left 26 people dead in their town of just over 30,000. A presidential visit, a media firestorm and scores of funerals eclipsed the routine town hall meetings, budget woes and weekend concerts.

But while the story faded for the rest of the world after a few weeks, it has remained a part of everyday life here. The June 14 edition of the Bee reflects what many here call “the new normal” —  a community transformed by loss, but also resilient, and committed to evolving.

“It’s not something that you revisit or ‘oh yes, let’s remember, it was six months ago,” said Editor Curtiss Clark. “This is something that everybody’s been thinking about every day, since that day.”

In other words, the staff of the Bee never discussed special coverage to observe what happened six months ago, since they’ve been doing that all the time.

As just one example, education reporter Eliza Hallabeck has been focused on stories about graduation and end-of-year student projects as the summer approaches. But she also covers memorial after memorial — something she never expected would be a part of her beat.

“I just keep going day to day,” said Hallabeck. She recently wrote about a local teacher and former student who was planning to skydive today in Rhode Island to help raise money for a Newtown-based nonprofit.

“You know, there are stories that come up every year, stories that are just typical education stories,” Hallabeck said, “and then stories like the skydiving event, that are new this year.”

Those constant commemorations have become a key part of Newtown’s story in the past six months. It’s no longer just about loss and grief; The Bee’s readers want to hear about the generosity that’s poured into their town in the form of money, therapy dogs and heartfelt letters. (The town also has received 80,000 stuffed animals, according to Clark.) 

On one hand, such stories of generosity and resilience are touching; on the other, they are constant reminders of the tragedy.

“It’s everywhere. It’s amazing,” said Associate Editor John Voket. “I was out of town [recently] … and I came around a corner, and there’s a big huge Sandy Hook emblem hammered onto somebody’s tree.”

And even unrelated stories inevitably touch on the events of 12/14. Bee reporters will find that almost anything can be a trigger. Associate Editor Shannon Hicks — whose photo of children and teachers leaving Sandy Hook Elementary School after the shootings made the front page of international newspapers and has been nominated for several prominent awards — said she drives past the homes of at least three victims on the way to work each day.

Talking with sources, too, can be a reminder. “It’s more during the interview process when I’m listening to people and they start to break down, and then I think back to that morning,” Hicks said.

Voket said he often will be having a conversation with a town official, or a police officer, about a completely different topic. And yet, “I’ll get caught off guard by someone making a comment. … I’ll catch myself having a little wave of sadness or remorse and then, I’ll just kind of take a breath and refocus.”

And that may be the biggest challenge for this newspaper. The Bee’s job is to reflect what’s happening in a community that’s in mourning. As Voket sees it, that means chronicling something unimaginable.

“How do you begin a journey toward a positive feeling when 20 first-graders and six educators got horribly, horribly murdered?” he said, his voice shaking with emotion. “No guidebook, no rule book, no road map.”

So for the staff at the Newtown Bee, June 14 is much more than an anniversary. It marks another day the community has had to move forward and heal.