Hours before Newtown changed forever, subscribers to the Newtown Bee received their weekly paper.
The front page of the Friday, Dec. 14, edition was a typical one. Its main headline: “Vandalism Leaves Old Headstones Cracked and Damaged.” Three other stories talk about the school system’s financial woes, its above-average performance and a merger of the school and town accounting systems.
Those standard community stories have now been eclipsed by a mass shooting, a presidential visit, dozens of funerals and the descent of international mourners and media on this town of just over 30,000. The Bee’s website, which normally receives around 2,000 hits a day, got 120,000 hits on the day of the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School– causing it to crash six times.
“People come to expect that no event, really, is too small for us to go cover,” said Editor Curtiss Clark. “If there’s something odd in the neighborhood… they’ll call us and suggest that we cover it.”
The execution of 20 elementary schoolchildren and six faculty members “…seemed like something that was putting us in way over our heads,” Clark said.
The Bee has served Newtown since 1877, and is still owned by the same family that founded it. Eight people edit and report full-time. “We’re a small newspaper, and we work very hard just to report on the regular churn of local news,” Clark said.
He began his career 40 years ago in this little red wooden house about a mile from the Sandy Hook neighborhood. Since the gunshots rang out that terrible Friday morning, Clark and his staff have worked non-stop, putting out the paper’s first special edition ever in its 135-year-old history.
Through it all they have constantly asked themselves: How can we write about the mass killing of children whom we’ve seen at the local playground, whose parents we know?
They have struggled to come to terms with their roles as journalists and as citizens and grieving members of the community. And through that struggle, they have had to make tough decisions — and deal with a new, unthinkable work environment.
“We would have people come in to offer their support to us, and they’d end up in a sobbing embrace with somebody, and this is happening in your workspace as a journalist, as you’re trying to put out news,” Clark said.
“…We realized we were in new territory, that we had never been in before, and hopefully will never be in again.”
The morning of Dec. 14 was supposed to be a day of celebration for staff at the Newtown Bee. A staff member had just won an award, Clark recalled, and a catered Christmas party was to follow.
Then he heard on the police scanner that emergency responders were preparing to set up a staging area near Sandy Hook Elementary School.
John Voket is associate editor for the Bee as well as a general assignment reporter. That morning, he drove straight to Sandy Hook from his home in Waterbury after hearing reports of gunshots and ambulances.
Immediately, he became much more than just a journalist at the scene. He was getting calls from his sources in the police department — and also from friends, asking if their children were safe.
He was an observer — and soon, a mourner.
“And then I saw the image that will kind of be burned into my brain, which was these two big state police officers with their Smokey Bear hats and their bulletproof vests, their arms around each other, heaving in tears,” he remembered, his voice breaking. “And I knew then that it was really bad.”
Other scenes witnessed — and captured — by Bee staffers included the now iconic photo of a line of anguished children, their hands on their classmates’ shoulders, being led away from the horrible event. Associate editor, reporter and photographer Shannon Hicks, a 20-plus year veteran Bee journalist, photographed the children in the early moments of the shooting aftermath. She had arrived at the school as a journalist, but found herself slipping into her role as a Newtown volunteer firefighter, rendering whatever help she could.
As she responded to the alerts, the Bee’s education reporter, Eliza Hallabeck, who grew up in Newtown and now lives in the Sandy Hook neighborhood, was trying to convince herself that she wasn’t on her way to a big story — where many people were hurt.
“I kept telling myself that it wasn’t — it wasn’t even one person,” she recalled. “It was not what was happening. It was not what the rumors were.”
The rest of the day was a blur for Hallabeck, 27, who has covered education for the Bee since graduating from Southern Connecticut State University. She’s gone to countless school concerts, toy drives and graduation ceremonies — even a concert at Sandy Hook elementary just two days beforehand.
She did her best to be objective. But she knew her role had to be a little different than that of much of the media that has poured into Newtown in recent days.
“We’ve just been trying to help, because that’s all we can do as reporters and as citizens that live here,” she said. “That was all I could do. I just had to keep trying to help.”
And so besides listening to, comforting, and writing about everyone affected by the tragedy, Hallabeck has spent much of her time fielding the overwhelming number of callers who want to make donations or wish the community well. Phones were still ringing almost off the hook on Wednesday as people from around the world made inquiries.
And amid the media circus, Hallabeck decided to take a step back when she wrote about Newtown students returning to school on Tuesday.
She walked down the street to Hawley Elementary School, a nearby school that she herself attended years ago, but turned away when she saw the line of reporters across the street.
“I didn’t want to burden them,” she said, speaking not only of the school community, but of the reporters themselves. School staff might let her in, since they knew her — but then other reporters would ask why they couldn’t get the same access.
As Hallabeck interviews those affected by the shootings, she said, she tries to do what she learned in journalism classes in college: To be sensitive, and to listen. “As people start to talk about sensitive subjects, she asks them if they’re absolutely sure they want to be quoted.
“I think it boils down to one of the first things you learn as a journalist: You listen,” she said.
Many might say that much of the outside media is not doing that. The Bee has tried to play a role in keeping the rest of the media at bay, even pleading in a Facebook post for all journalists to stop attending funerals.
Were they asking as members of the community, or of the media? Clark asks: Why can’t they be both?
“We felt it was our duty as journalists to say to other journalists, please back off,” he said. “This is not a service to our readership, and ultimately, it’s not a service that anybody’s audience is going to appreciate.”
Today’s edition will be heartbreakingly different than last week’s. There are pages of personal messages from members of the Bee staff to their readers. Plenty of inches and ink will be spent on explaining how people can donate to the community and the families of the victims. A few stories talk about attempts at a return to normalcy, covering the move to a new school for Sandy Hook students, for instance.
Hallabeck said the tragedy has made her think deeply about the role journalists — local or not — can play in covering these types of events.
“I feel lucky to know journalists that can listen, and be supportive to the community, while also trying to be the mirror that we’re supposed to be, reflecting back things that happen,” she said.
For now, the newsroom has gotten used to a new reality: sometimes members of the outside media burst in, asking for an exclusive. There is the occasional nasty phone call or Facebook post. But more often than not, they hear from friends and supporters.
“It was not part of our repertoire before to cry as we’re doing our job. But we realized in this instance that, you know, we were going to do that. So do it, pull yourself together, move on,” Clark said.
Of course, he added, “that seems to be the way most of Newtown is coping with this.”
And if the job of the Newtown Bee is to hold up a mirror to the community, then Clark and his reporters are doing exactly that.