Behind AP's coverage of the Mt. Rainier shooting

Jan. 4, 2012
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(In this Jan. 4 memo below to The Associated Press staff, Managing Editor for Financial News and Global Training Kristin Gazlay explains how quick mobilization and excellent teamwork enabled AP to lead the breaking news coverage of the Washington state shooting death of a National Park Service ranger on Mt. Rainier.)


It was a sleepy New Year’s Day in Washington state when Donna Blankinship, working a BNS shift, got word of a shooting on Mt. Rainier. She called News Editor Chris Grygiel and photographer Ted Warren, both of whom were off, to warn them they might need to mobilize. Newsman Mike Baker was supposed to cover a redistricting hearing in Olympia, but Grygiel instead sent him and Warren to the mountain, where cellphone service was spotty or nonexistent.

With Blankinship working the phones, the team discovered that a National Park Service ranger had been shot to death when she tried to pull over a car that refused to stop at a checkpoint requiring drivers to put snow chains on their tires. Authorities were searching the snowy mountain for a gunman -- and Warren and Baker were there.

 They knew they couldn’t both leave the mountain to file or they might miss a key development in the search for the gunman and the evacuation of a national park. But they had to keep the story moving. They decided Warren couldn’t leave at all, so Baker found the one spot on the mountain with cell reception and -- using his photography-for-reporters training -- not only reported the story himself but became Warren’s runner, transmitting photos and calling details in to Blankinship and Grygiel, then going back to the scene where Warren would give him more reporting and more photos. “Neither was just a reporter or a photographer,” Grygiel said. “They had to be both.”

In contrast, Reuters had only a photographer on the scene -- who had to keep leaving to file, thus missing some of the story.

The arrangement sealed AP’s dominance: We were first with the ID of the shooter, who was discovered by a search plane – a handgun and rifle at his side -- after he suffered hypothermia and drowned. And we were first, by pulling public records, in reporting that he was a 24-year-old Iraq veteran with domestic violence issues and a diagnosis of PTSD:

The play was spectacular. The AP team earned Page One play in the newspaper nearest the mountain, the Tacoma News-Tribune, all the way down the West Coast to Fresno, Calif., sweeping front pages in California, Oregon, Washington and Montana. The AP also dominated web traffic nationally and, within 24 hours, the bureau had gone even further with a follow on the national parks’ gun laws.

For excellent teamwork and quick mobilization to own a breaking story, Baker, Warren and Blankinship share this week’s $300 Best of the States prize, setting an excellent tone for the new year.

Kristin Gazlay

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