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Nearly 20 tornadoes raced across several Midwest states in the early morning hours of Feb. 29. A dozen people were killed in three states. The hardest hit: Harrisburg, Ill., where The Daily Register is based.
Terry Geese, editor of the Register, knew he had to rally his staff early to cover the deadly tornadoes that struck his tiny southern Illinois city.
"I called the staff in and called in composing shortly after 5 a.m.," Geese said. The Register's staffer obliged. "We have a very small staff, two reporters and one person in composing."
Geese is referring to "staff writers Brian DeNeal and Christy Stewart — and I almost forgot our sports editor, Michael Dann, who is a great shooter," he said.
He and his folks got help from two past employees of the newspaper who volunteered their time to write stories and take photographs.
"Former employees Eric Fodor and Jon Musgrave. Fodor was a staff writer and Musgrave an editor," Geese said. "Fodor came in after work and Musgrave was here all day."
The former Register journalists didn't just occupy a desk in the newsroom, they went out to find stories.
"One went out and tracked the tornado and did multiple interviews the entire length of it," Geese said.
When a big story like this breaks, editors kick into planning mode. But a small staff with little time made that difficult.
"We basically had little planning," Geese said. "The main goal to was to get someone to penetrate the area."
"We had a tight time frame. It was 5:30 when I sent them out. We had an 8:45 press time, Geese said.
He was able to get more time to deliver the pages. "The press plant gave me an extra hour, so I had until 9:45 to get something to them," he said.
With so much devastation, Geese's journalists had trouble accessing some scenes.
"The reporter (Brian DeNeal) was turned away by local police," Geese said.
But DeNeal didn't give up just yet.
"He walked up to the edge of a draining ditch, crawled across and back into the area," Geese said.
In the little time available for first-day coverage, Geese ran two pages of content on the tornado. "It was extremely basic," he said. "That was all I could do."
Let's take a look.
The entire front page was given to the storm coverage, and rightfully so. News events like this don't happen all too often, so playing it large was the right call.
A big photo by staffer Brian DeNeal, who also wrote the story, shows debris and what remains of a house in the background. The more captivating photo, though, is the secondary photo.
"I made the conscious decision to use a body bag photo," Geese said. "It was because the photo was extremely compelling."
Running a photo of a victim on the front page is a bold move because of the response from readers.
"I had one phone call," Geese said. "These faces of these men told a major story. I had one phonoe call from one person who believed it was a relative, but he was wrong. The victim was a relative of (a Daily Register) employee. She lost two relatives."
Studying the photo, it's clear that it's neither graphic nor gratuitous and truthfully depicts the tragedy of the day, making it an important part of the paper's coverage.
The back page was a color position, a natural choice for more coverage. This page included the jump, Musgrave's story and photo about a trucker who survived the storm and more photos the destruction seen around Harrisburg.
Considering the circumstances, the present — and former — staff of The Daily Register did a fantastic job.
The luck of good timing was on their side, too. With the tornodo touching down in the early morning hours, the afternoon paper had time to report and publish its first-edition coverage the day of the tragedy.
No rest for the weary, though. As the sun rose today, the staff was back at work preparing for a more in-depth second day of coverage. In today's Daily Register, stories and photos covered 10 pages! Two in the main section and an 8-page special section of more coverage. Um, wow. Considering the staff size, a truly remarkable feat.
Here are the A-section pages:
And here is the 8-page special section coverage:
You'll notice the pages are filled with images of the destruction found all over town. WIth this kind of devastation, photographs are a key part of the coverage. Readers, no douibt, will spend more time than usual poring over the photos. I would also venture a guess that these edtions, as well as what may follow, will be kept by readers who will tuck them away in some box or photo album as a visual history of what happened on leap day, 2012.
Again, really nice work by the staff at The Daily Register.
Joe Greco is corporate design director for GateHouse Media.
Contact him at email@example.com.