As news of the Jan. 8 mass shooting in Tucson coursed through the web, TucsonCitizen.com quickly became hobbled. Although editor Mark Evans didn’t realize it at the time, his site became one of the first with the news of a mass shooting when a politically connected blogger posted one sentence: “Gabrielle Giffords shot in head in Tucson.”
Internet traffic, primarily from outside the region, quickly overwhelmed the site’s servers. Undeterred, Evans’s team took to Twitter and Facebook to report the unfolding story, while he continued to publish the site between server reboots.
What unfolded was a tragedy that shook the city, the state and beyond. And for Evans and his small team of journalists and bloggers, it began a wild 48 hours of news coverage.
To understand the Tucson Citizen, you must first understand Evans. He is a one-man-band powerhouse who was tapped by Gannett to reinvent what was, until 2009, a printed paper with a 60-person staff. Evans has worked hard to partner with journalists and bloggers in the community to keep the site in operation. The site primarily produces some original reporting, but also aggregates coverage, including sports reporting as part of J-Lab’s Networked Journalism pilot project.
Evans learned about the shooting Saturday morning in a phone call from his wife, who happened to be at the shopping center that was the scene of the shooting before police and fire units arrived. “I was skeptical but went online to see what I could find out,” he wrote in an e-mail.
After searching for the news on other websites, Evans tried checking TucsonCitizen.com only to realize it had crashed. Moments before, David Morales had posted the one sentence summary on his blog, hosted on TucsonCitizen.com.
The world began searching for news and suddenly rushed to find the detail on TucsonCitizen.com.
With the server down, contributors could not access the site’s content management system. “I had numerous bloggers who are deeply embedded in the Democratic Party who had first-hand information about the shooting and the aftermath and were unable to logon to post the stories.”
Evans frantically dressed, drove to the office and manually rebooted the server.
TucsonCitizen.com continued to crash about every 15 minutes, Evans said, and each reboot took five minutes. “It crashed more than it was up Saturday,” he said. He updated the site between reboots, while two recently hired staff members began posting stories on social media sites. They attended and live-tweeted press conferences, too, as Twitter remained one of the best open channels to communicate to residents.
“Staff size played a role in that we’re not a breaking-news gathering staff,” Evans said. “With the server crashes, [our aggregation] model failed. So we had to put our reporter hats back on and do what we could to keep the site relevant.”
Despite the crashes, TucsonCitizen.com drew five times the normal traffic of an ordinary weekend.
By Sunday, the site was more stable. Bloggers were able to add some perspective, and readers began to add their political voices again to the site’s comment section. “Interspersed among the invective and name calling are reasoned, rational comments that add to the body of knowledge and understanding of events that affect readers’ lives,” Evans said. That is a welcome sign that the site is functioning properly, he said.
Technological frustrations aside, Evans said that worrying about a traditional print newspaper would have been burdensome. “Not having the distraction of page layout, story-length limits, press deadlines and the like,” it was easier to report and publish breaking news than worrying about a print edition, he said.
Carli Brosseau, the Tucson Citizen’s new social media editor, wrote about the challenges in the days that followed.