Two years after a major newsroom purge, a scrappier, Web-savvier Baltimore Sun has arisen. Is there hope for quality local news after all?
By Michael Anft (Urbanite, 2/1/2011)
On September 16, when a troubled son shot his mother’s surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore got a clear look at Where Journalism Is Now. The scene was made of gripping, hair-trigger stuff: After shooting Dr. David Cohen at 11:11 a.m., Paul Warren Pardus holed himself up in his mother’s hospital room. Meanwhile, a mile away at the Baltimore Sun, a cadre of journalists, led by crime reporters Justin Fenton and Peter Hermann, sprang into action. Unlike past generations of scribes who worked toward the next daily edition—usually several hours away—they and other staffers didn’t have the luxury of staring down one fixed deadline. News doesn’t just happen anymore; it runs like a meth-charged hamster on a treadmill.
After a newsroom scanner blasted an account of a shooting on the eighth floor of a building in the Eastern District, Fenton got moving. He couldn’t think of any other tall buildings in the district except for Hopkins, and what the scanner was telling him—”Doctor shot”—seemed to confirm his suspicions. Activating his Twitter account using his cell phone, he told his followers and baltimoresun.com readers about the chatter on the scanner. He was careful to call the reports “unconfirmed,” however; he remembered that a tweeted story about a shooting on the Potomac River a year or so ago actually turned out to be a military drill.
After furiously calling around to city cops and reading some tweets from people inside the hospital, Fenton realized this was more than a drill. He rushed to the scene, reaching it just before police blockaded the area. He sequestered himself in a computer lab in the Hopkins School of Nursing that provided a view of the building across Wolfe Street where the shooter lurked. He took pictures and forwarded tweets from people working at the hospital. When other media outlets, including CNN and MSNBC, saw his tweets from the scene, they patched him on air for interviews.
CNN’s @BreakingNews Twitter feed, which has two million followers, instructed people to follow (Justin) Fenton’s feed for updates. “I gained something like 1,100 followers that day,” Fenton recalls, adding that many of those followers have since hung around. “The picture I took of the [police] sniper, which I didn’t think was that big of a deal at the time, was aired on national television and national websites and picked up 13,000 views on Twitter itself.”
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