This story is part of The Commonwealth Times’ special coverage in honor of its 50th anniversary.
Georgia Geen, Executive Editor
When Pat Kane first heard about the shooting at Virginia Tech, he thought it might be a cover story — they’d look for a local angle and watch out for a vigil. But then the number of fatalities started to climb.
“Another former editor called me and just said, ‘I mean, you got to get going,’ because once that number hit you know, 20,” Kane said, “it was clear it was one of the worst mass shootings of all time.”
Kane, the executive editor, grabbed three reporters, and the group made the hours-long drive to Blacksburg after that phone call on April 16, 2007. That day, a student at Virginia Tech shot and killed 32 people before shooting and killing himself inside the school’s Norris Hall.
The Commonwealth Times won the national Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence award for its breaking news coverage of the shooting. The print edition published three days afterward was filled almost exclusively with related stories — on the main events, the vigils, campus safety and the role of Facebook following the shooting. Kane wrote in a Style Weekly piece that the staff finished production at 4:38 a.m. the day of publication.
“There are some mixed feelings about winning an award for one of the worst tragedies in American history,” Kane said.
Despite those emotions, Kane said the staff could have made choices that wouldn’t have led to the quality of coverage they produced. It was the end of the semester, after all, with only a few issues left and graduation looming.
“I could have said, ‘No we’re not going to Tech.’ We could have said, ‘You know, it’s the end of the semester, everyone’s stressed out,’” Kane said. “But I think we did kind of dig deep and decide to put in the work.”
Kane, who was previously photo editor, took photos, and the group found itself among national media — Katie Couric, who was then with CBS, took Kane’s seat at a press conference.
When going about for man-on-the-street interviews, Kane said they were often mistaken for Virginia Tech students. They had to “constantly” tell other journalists, “Sorry, we’re not [Virginia Tech] students, we’re reporters too.”
Adding to the confusion was the fact that reporter Stephen Hicks’ letterman jacket — which was actually from his cousin’s high school — had colors similar to Tech’s. Students there initially thought he was representing their university’s paper, not The Commonwealth Times, until he introduced himself and indicated otherwise.
“Students seemed to gravitate toward me,” Hicks said.
For Hicks, it was important for him to “step his game up” when covering the shooting. He said he was “floored” when Kane called him months later to tell him about the Mark of Excellence award.
“It was a really great feeling,” Hicks said.“I was able to respond to Pat’s phone call and I was able to make myself available to be a part of a team effort to cover such an important moment.”
Virginia Tech wasn’t the first school shooting in the 2007 staff’s memory. The Columbine shooting, which The CT covered by sending a photographer and a reporter to Littleton, Colorado, had occurred eight years previously when Hicks was in middle school.
A journalism professor at the Robertson School of Media and Culture, Wilma Wirt, urged the executive editor at the time, Christian Finkbeiner, to send someone to cover it. She footed the bill for the plane tickets, Finkbeiner remembers.
“I thought, ‘What? Why would we do that, we’re a student newspaper,’” Finkbeiner said. “If she hadn’t gotten the plane ticket, we obviously wouldn’t have done it. Once she said this is something we should do, we jumped on it.”
High school wasn’t that far in the distance for most staffers, which Finkbeiner said influenced the coverage. That made their perspectives different from those of journalists working in national media. But the shock was universal.
“It was an aberration, it wasn’t like today where it’s an issue,” Finkbeiner said. “This was an isolated event, nothing like this had happened before.”
Hicks was a teenager when Columbine happened, right as members of his generation were “coming into ourselves.” The proximity of the Virginia Tech shooting, and the fact that many VCU students were peers of the victims, “colored” The CT’s reporting, he said.
“I was in middle school when Columbine happened, but I was an adult and I was reporting when Virginia Tech was happening,” Hicks said. “A lot of these folks were my peers … I could have easily been in that room.”