Covering the Boston Bombings/NPR Intern Edition

Originally published on the NPR Interns tumblr on April 24, 2013 as part of a series of reflections on what it was like to work at NPR during the coverage of the manhunt for the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings. 

What It’s Really Like: Reporting Breaking News for All Things Considered

By Sarah Kaplan

When I arrived at work on Friday morning, things seemed oddly calm. People were sitting at their computers, quietly typing. Two producers were standing and comparing morning commutes. You’d never guess that they, like me, had spent most of their early mornings poring over the latest updates in the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers – absentmindedly munching cereal or sipping coffee as our eyes scanned newsprint and computer screens.

All Things Considered’s morning editorial meeting, at which the staff proposes stories for the day’s show, was brief – more of a strategy meeting than a pitch session. The Executive Producer let us know that we’d be organizing special coverage of the manhunt throughout the day – picking up from Morning Edition at noon and then carrying through until … the story was resolved.

By the time we all returned to our desks, the atmosphere had changed. Now we were purposeful, even a little frenzied. ATC’s supervising producer Julia Buckley – who’d been crowned “Master Booker” for the day’s coverage – divied up assignments among the staff. She set up a big white board near the studio showing which staffers were seeking out which guests. My assignment was to find Watertown residents who had witnessed the shootout between the suspects and the police that had occurred there early Friday morning.

I quickly set to work, scanning endless twitter streams for people who had posted photos or firsthand accounts of the gunfight. I must have tweeted at twenty people before one called me back. This man had heard the gunfire 15 feet from his front door and had tweeted pictures of the violence. Now he was locked down inside his house, watching as SWAT teams scoured the neighborhood. Still on the phone, I shot my hand into the air and started waving it furiously at Julia. She came over, and I hurriedly whispered the guest’s story to her, covering the receiver with my hand as I spoke. “Lets have him on at 12:30,” Julia said. 12:30 was in five minutes.

My co-intern frantically typed up a card – a short document describing who the guest is for the director and the hosts – while I explained to my guest that he was going to be going live in five minutes. Then I transferred him to the studio, briefly turned up my radio to make sure he made it onto air and then returned my gaze to my computer screen.

That was pretty much how the rest of the day went. I made endless phone calls – after I’d exhausted Twitter, I began cold calling Watertown residents listed in White Pages. Some numbers were disconnected, many went to voicemail. Those who did answer often said they hadn’t seen anything, only heard the pops of gunfire and the booms of explosives. The eyewitnesses I did find all had amazing and terrifying stories to tell. I remember being floored by the courage of one young women who’d had bullets shot into her home. She was alone, except for her dog, but her voice was steady as she recounted her story to me.

The day raced on. My notes from my conversations with Watertown residents became more and more riddled with typos as the hours passed. At one point someone bought a chocolate cake and placed it at the front of the newsroom. My co-intern brought over two slices, and as the sugar flooded our bloodstreams we both remarked that we felt nauseous – whether from the cake or the adrenaline, we couldn’t tell.

Four p.m. rolled around – the start of ATC’s regular coverage. Normally, it’s an intern’s job to print scripts and run them into the studio for the hosts to read while they’re on air. Much of the program is pre-taped, but the intros you hear at the beginning of every piece are always read live. But Friday was totally different – during the six hours that Robert Siegel and Melissa Block were on air, nearly every word they said was live. Scripts were being written 30 seconds before they needed to be read, and even if there had been time for us to run them in, there weren’t enough breaks in the live feed for us to sneak in to the studio and deliver the scripts. So for six hours, the hosts read off computer screens, often finding out what they were going to talk about as they read the words. I am still astonished that they managed such a feat – I’d have cracked under the pressure after about 15 minutes.

The FBI press conference at around 6:30 – the one at which they announced that the one at-large suspect still had not been found, and the lockdown had been lifted – came as a welcome break. For a blissful 15 minutes, there was nothing to do but watch and listen.

But then came the announcement that the suspect had been found lying in a boat – in Watertown, no less. So I started up my phone calls again, seeking anyone nearby who could tell what they were seeing. One woman lived five doors down from the house with the boat, but she was on the ground floor and was afraid to go anywhere near a door or window with good reason. I stayed on the phone with her a long time while the various producers and editors in the studio figured out when the hosts would be able to talk to her. I asked my guest about the work she does, how long she’d lived in Watertown. I like to think her voice became a little calmer as we spoke.

And then finally, finally, the announcement came that the suspect had been captured, and the tone of our phone calls changed. I called back one man who I’d spoken to earlier in the day. In our first conversation, he’d told me that his three large dogs weren’t coping well with the lockdown order. Now, he was jubilant. “I’m going to take my dogs for a walk!” he said. “That’s the first thing I’m going to do.”

By now it was about 9:30, half an hour from the end of ATC’s last regular feed (in normal circumstances, the show is fed from 4 to 6, 6 to 8 and then 8 to 10, with updates throughout the night as needed). It was decided that we would stay on air until the end of President Obama’s statement. When Robert and Melissa finally signed off for the night, everyone in the building began to clap. The applause continued as people began trickling out of the studio – the executive producer, the show manager, the director, and finally, the hosts. The newsroom slowly emptied as exhausted reporters and producers packed up and headed home.

As Robert Siegel said at the end of the show, “I think it’s fair to say the city of Boston and the nation have earned a weekend.”

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