Northern Star staffers walk line between student and journalist

 
 
Published: 2/18/2008 12:05 AM

The shooter sprayed bullets into the crowded lecture hall just after 3 p.m.

By 4, the Northern Illinois University student newspaper had posted its first Web update about the shooting.

Twelve hours later, the staff of the Northern Star newspaper had produced an eight-page publication documenting the devastation to their campus and classmates.

"The vast majority of our staff was here immediately after they knew what was happening," Northern Star Editor in Chief John Puterbaugh said. "We had 35 people who came here before they went anywhere else."

Puterbaugh was near Cole Hall, where the crime occurred, when he got word of the shootings.

He said he ran outside and immediately started "writing down everything everybody said."

A quick glance around revealed half a dozen Star staffers doing exactly the same thing.

"There was no planning what to do. No delegating. Just doing," Puterbaugh said.

Partway through the evening, word reached the paper that one of their own staffers, 20-year-old Daniel Parmenter of Westchester, was among those killed.

Parmenter had been an ad representative for the paper.

"That made it even more real than it already was," said Jim Killam, faculty adviser for the Northern Star.

Star reporters and photographers fanned out through the campus. Usual distinctions between sports, news and entertainment reporters went out the window. Editors fielded calls from media outlets across the country looking for the inside scoop from the student paper.

"We didn't have the luxury or time to decide what to say," Puterbaugh said. "At that time, people were talking to news outlets as students first and journalists second."

The staff managed to walk the fine line between journalist and student, Killam said. They were hearing rumors from friends but declined to speculate or put unconfirmed information in print. They made the tough choice not to print some particularly graphic photos of the victims.

"I'm very proud of them. They acted very professionally. No one freaked out," Killam said.

Puterbaugh, who is from Carmel, Ind., said he kept his emotions in check all night -- until he spoke on the phone with his family.

"I was fine while I was in the newsroom, but I took a call from my grandma, and I was almost in tears," Puterbaugh said.

On Friday, reporters began contacting those close to the victims.

"We're just now reaching out to the families and friends. We're giving them the opportunity to tell their stories, but we're not pushing it at all," Puterbaugh said.

On that front, Puterbaugh received some advice from the editor of the Virginia Tech student newspaper, whom he had befriended at a journalism conference during the summer.

The Virginia Tech editor advised that there were a tremendous number of students and family members who were eager to talk about the victims of the shooting, to keep their memories alive.

"She's the only person in the country who can understand what we're doing right now," Puterbaugh said.

Hold the ink

The Northern Star editors have decided to publish an online-only edition today, since the campus will be closed. The Web site will be updated this week as needed. The paper, which normally prints Monday through Friday, will publish its next print edition Feb. 25. Visit www.northernstar.info.