A little after midnight Friday morning, slot desk editor Jim Wright was making a final check of Associated Press headlines to update The Mercury’s website when he saw a brief story that a police officer at MIT near Boston had been shot. He posted the story to our website, too late to make the print editions.
About the same time, reporter Frank Otto was getting home to West Chester after working late covering the evening’s Phoenixville Area School Board meeting and stopping at the McDonald’s drive-through to pick up dinner. As he ate, he scanned Twitter on his phone, noticing some posts about a police shooting and some grenades or bombs being part of a shootout.
In Conshohocken, assistant sports editor Steve Moore was off for the night and had returned home after going to a Phillies game with his wife and young son. A Boston University alum, Moore was checking for news on TV out of his adopted home city around midnight when he saw some footage from Watertown, Mass.
And then headlines started to roll.
“I saw on Twitter something about two people were armed with grenades, so I searched and started listening to the Boston police scanner,” recalled Otto. “There was a lot of talk about gunfire. About then, I started fully listening.
“A friend from Wisconsin going in to law enforcement was listening too, and we were talking back and forth. It was like listening to a baseball game.
“At one point, they talked about the ‘suspect on the ground,’ and an officer said, ‘This may be a stupid question, but do you think we should turn off our phones?’”
Moore’s focus was on the people of Watertown more than the police. “I have friends who live in Watertown and a friend who works at MIT. My first reaction was to check on Facebook and Twitter and make sure they were OK,” he said.
About that time, Otto and Moore noticed each other’s tweets and starting “talking” through direct messages and email. “Steve helped me out because I couldn’t remember The Mercury’s Twitter password,” recalled Otto. “I figured I might as well start posting some stuff to the website, too,” said Moore.
“Frank and I decided on what to tweet and retweet,” said Moore. “The Boston Globe and The Associated Press are trusted sources; anything else, use caution. We’re not trying to break anything,” Moore said. “We just thought, ‘Hey maybe if somebody wakes up and has no idea what happened, at least they will know what’s going on.”
From 1:30 to 4:30 a.m., Moore updated the top story on The Mercury website six or seven times. The final version at 4:38 a.m. reported that one of the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings was dead after a police shootout and the second was on the run, a massive manhunt under way.
During the same time frame and continuing until about 7:30 a.m., Otto posted @MercuryX, unfolding the story for our readers from news accounts, the police scanner, and other reporting sources.
“It kinda rolls out like a mosaic — you have to sort through it all, and you need context,” Otto said.
Responsibility and accuracy are critical.
“I stayed away from specific addresses or anything that might hurt what was going on,” Otto said.
Both Otto and Moore were careful to avoid rumor and unattributed information. “We’re all about confirming,” Otto said. He sought out known reliable sources, including a reporter on the scene for Digital First Media, The Mercury’s parent company.
The tweets provided both witness and reporting information:
“Just had presser w/Col Alben of MSP — confirmed one suspect one loose — another briefing in an hour.”
“State Police to Greater Boston — basically stay home today. Especially you, Watertown, where no traffic can go in/out.”
“Police, still searching, to each other: ‘Make sure we’re identifying each other and avoiding crossfire situations.’”
The story went on for about 60 tweets, some with photos, and a half-dozen stories, gathered and published in the middle of the night by two Mercury staffers while most of the region’s readers slept.
It was breaking news in every sense, delivered from the streets where it was unfolding in Watertown, Mass., to the phone by your bedside or the laptop on your desk.
Otto said sometime early Friday morning he noticed one guy on Twitter posted a proclamation, “Traditional media is dead.”
The same person spent the night following and retweeting reporters. These two Mercury reporters proved we’re not dead.
We’re not even sleeping.