TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell talks with WCVB Boston GM Bill Fine and News Director Andrew Vrees about what their station and city went through in those five intense days of almost nonstop coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and manhunt.
A Debriefing From Boston’s Front Line
Just before 3 p.m. on Monday, April 15, two deadly terrorist bombs exploded at the finish line of Boston Marathon, triggering massive efforts to save life and limb and find the perpetrators. The manhunt culminated five days later when authorities captured the second suspect in the close-in Boston suburb of Watertown.
Local broadcasters immediately began pouring all of their news resources into the expanding, multifaceted story. While reporting on the progress of the wounded, they aided authorities in warning and reassuring local citizens. Most of all, they worked hard to keep pace with the week-long search for the culprits. Until they were caught or killed, the city couldn’t rest.
Hearst Television’s ABC affiliate WCVB is Boston’s TV news leader and it has been second to none in its coverage of the bombing and its aftermath. In those first five days alone, it devoted 72 hours to the coverage, much of it without commercial interruption.
In this debriefing, recorded last Wednesday, WCVB General Manager Bill Fine and News Director Andrew Vrees, who heard the news while on vacation in Hawaii and had to rush home, tell their story behind the story.
An edited transcript:
How are things in Boston right now?
Fine: It’s very strong, very resilient, tremendous amount of civic pride. If you think about it, this happened on Monday and by Friday they had both the suspects in a terrorist bombing. That doesn’t happen very often. Pretty much everybody was dedicated to bringing them to justice as soon as possible and that allows people to go back to their lives a lot quicker in my view. They opened Boylston Street, the businesses are back open, everybody is back in their offices. They did it very respectfully and then the lighter side of it, there was Big Papi in Fenway.
Oh, we all heard what Big Papi had to say.
Fine: I mean, we all looked at each other and we said, did he just say what we thought he said and sure enough he did. My wife and I spent Sunday walking the city, going to the memorial and down to the press conference. People just seemed very relaxed, happy it’s over, but sad and reflective at the same time. It’s very hard — New Yorkers certainly understand this — for something like that to happen in your home town.
Vrees: The sense that I get is the city is healing. Boston is not a city that cowers in a corner when it’s wounded. Boston is the city that comes back fighting.
Is this unprecedented in your experience?
Fine: This one was intensely local and it was breaking and I would say that is the biggest difference. I am really, really hard-pressed to think of anything like this. I was in Baltimore during the snipers [in fall 2002] and that was a 28-day thing, but it wasn’t every minute of every day. Here, we have been on call every minute of every day for a week and a half now.
What about the digital media? How important was it in the coverage?
Vrees: It was critical. I mean the first way we communicated this to our audience was a Tweet that reporter Sean Kelly sent out at 2:52 p.m., which was like two minutes after the initial bombing.
Fine: This is part of the standard operating procedure now. We are on three screens pretty much all of the time for any breaking news, anything that’s really newsworthy.
This really engaged folks in the market. There was no doubt they were on our Facebook page. I think we’re up to 128,000 fans or something like that. We actually got some good tips, if not great tips, from some of our viewers. What we were doing was taking these tips from our social media and comparing them with what we were hearing from the police departments and government officials.
Vrees: As soon as we got the pictures of the suspects in, the story really took off. Everybody who knew these people, who had photographs, neighbors [contacted us through social media]. It was like dominos. When those pictures went out everything else just sort of kind of fell into place.
Fine: It was building the profile of these guys, where they went to school, where they lived, you know what I mean. We knew that Cambridge Rindge and Latin School was the high school early on. We knew that the other brother was a wrestler so it wasn’t as hard as you would think because these guys had their lives out there to some degree and not all of it had been wiped out.
How long after the FBI showed the pictures Thursday evening did you think you had an ID on the suspects?
Vrees: We had the names within hours, but we weren’t going to report them.
So when did you report the names?
Vrees: We waited until we had significant verification of the suspects names as in an official press release because during the course of that night, there was a lot of misinformation from a social media perspective and from traditional media as well. I am not throwing anybody under the bus here, but there was video on other stations of things that we didn’t put on TV. We were just really very careful and cautious of exactly what we did.
So where did you screw up. Do you have any regrets about what you reported?
Vrees: On Tuesday, one of our reporters reported that an arrest was imminent and she had multiple sources who have been sources for a long time. We had another reporter on staff who had the very same information. So it turned out that it wasn’t true. I mean others reported it as well, but it turned out that it wasn’t true. So, yes, that’s a regret. Any time we’re wrong, any time we make a mistake, it’s not a good thing.
What would you say the biggest challenge was?
Vrees: It was being in all these different places at the same time and it was making sure that the crews in the field were safe. There were two situations where there was gunfire and we had reporters who were live on television. We wanted to make sure that their priority was to be safe. I mean the anchors reminded the reporters on TV: listen, we know this is an incredibly tense situation. Take care of yourself first. Be safe.
The other challenge was just being on the air for as long as we were. I think in part it was fatigue. I mean everybody was going a hundred miles an hour for a very long time.
Fine: We had some people up for 36 straight hours.They were maybe catching a catnap somewhere in the truck or on the floor of the building, but I would say that it was adrenaline that kept us going.
How many people would you say you had on the street at any given time?
Vrees: You mean like reporter crews? Well, I would guess on the street during the height of this we probably had 30 to 40 people.
Fine: We knew within minutes of the bombing that help would be offered to us from Hearst before we even asked. The assistant news director from WBAL [Baltimore] got on a plane. Five or six of our other stations sent reporters, photographers, trucks. Some of them are still here so we could give our folks breaks, particularly on Sunday morning when things were a lot calmer. It gave people a chance to go get some sleep. I mean this thing was a marathon; it wasn’t a sprint.
Did you get much help from the networks?
Fine: It was a local story, it was best covered by local television stations. If you look at the cable network ratings in Boston versus the local television station ratings, it’s not even close.
[The networks] set up camp down in Back Bay, which was the story on Marathon Monday, but wasn’t the story after that. Thursday night into Friday, they were downtown and everybody was in lockdown so there was nothing in the background, no action.
Our folks got inside of the perimeter and the way they did that was by listening in on the police, things like that. They got a sense of where he was hiding and they got within a block of that location. When we were on the air live, you could hear the guns, you could hear the chaos, you could hear everything. At one point our reporter, Kelley Tuthill, was reporting from the area and then all of a sudden the guns just went off crazy behind her and you could just hear her gasp and then she caught her breath and kept going.
We have 10 TVs down in the newsroom. I am looking at the [networks] and they’re reporting from Back Bay and they’re picking up our pictures and HDH’s pictures and Fox is picking up FXT’s pictures. It was a truly, truly a local story. (Editor’s note: HDH is Sunbeam Television’s NBC affiliate WHDH; FXT is Fox O&O WFXT.)
How about some of the logistics of getting the pictures back — microwave, satellite, bonded cellular. How did that go?
Vrees: All those tools worked. We’re a big fan of the TVUPack [bonded cellular system]. In a situation where crews are moving from scene to scene, it is an invaluable tool. I mean the signal isn’t always as reliable as a satellite shot or a microwave shot, but, but it’s pretty darn good. It’s totally mobile.
Fine: You don’t have to break it down and it doesn’t take long to set up. They just take the pack — hopefully they don’t throw it in the truck — and then they’re gone.
Most of this coverage came with no or limited commercial interruptions, right?
Fine: Yeah that would be a fair statement. No commercials on Monday and Friday starting Thursday night after we found out the officer had been murdered.
What’s that do to your top line?
Fine: That is not something that we have calculated as of yet. I have got a pretty good sales staff and the other thing too is, because our clients largely lived through it, they have been great in understanding and allowing us to move things.
Instead of trying to figure it out in terms of a raw number, we’re trying to get it all back in and you have some clients in some spots that were booked multiple times and got moved multiple times and got preempted multiple times. For example, if you got bumped on Monday and we moved you to Friday, you got bumped again on Friday too.
The senate race was pretty much put on hold. One reason I say I don’t think we lost much was because [Democratic Senate candidate Ed] Markey is all doubled down this week. He’s spending twice what he was before. So it’s really more a matter of loss of inventory than it was a major loss of revenue.
And there are added costs, too.
Fine: There’s certainly added costs, but that’s what we do. We plan for that. I mean name a year where we didn’t have a big story. I can’t tell you what the big story is going to be in 2014 outside of the political races or a local athlete in the Olympics. I mean there’s going to be a hurricane, a tornado, a situation like this. There is every single year. So obviously we plan for that.
But we don’t have a philosophy of managing a budget during a crisis. We have a philosophy of, go cover it, do what you have to do, do what you need to do, make sure you are on top of the story, make sure you are serving the public. Then at the end of it, the business office will tell me what it netted out to.
I have got to tell you something. The concerns we have, I think they almost sound petty compared to others. There are businesses in Boylston Street and downtown Boston that were closed for a full week. There are people who lost their lives. There are people who lost their limbs and some of them don’t have insurance. You don’t have insurance from terrorist acts if this gets deemed a terrorist act, which the president already said it was. So I have no sympathy for us in this matter and nothing, but sympathy for the victims.
Did you have any conflict with the police as to on where you could go and how you could cover things?
Vrees: No, we work really closely with them. We respect what they have to say because what they’re trying to insure is public safety and our safety.
Fine: Yeah, when they set up perimeters we moved back. I would say it was a wonderful example of mutual respect.
So let’s wrap up with this. From that week, what do you think will be the most indelible moment?
Vrees: I think the moment that I will remember best is when they got him and us going on the air and saying they got him. That was in many ways a relief and a partial conclusion to that event. It’s partial because the story is never over, but I had a sense of relief that the story was coming to some sort of end, that my crews were out of harm’s way and that the people of Boston weren’t going to be afraid anymore that this madman was on the loose.
I couldn’t be prouder of my team than I am right now. I wasn’t there when the bombs went off, but they did their jobs flawlessly.They knew what needed to be done and they just did it.
How about you Bill?
Fine: I think at the moment we had a really good sense in the newsroom that this was about to end. So just a little before what Andrew mentioned, that you could see the momentum building and everybody in that newsroom was checking with all their sources. So we had a very, very high degree of confidence. It was over in a matter of minutes or maybe a half hour, an hour.
At that point I do remember thinking, thank God. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live here knowing that there had not been a resolution at that point. What it really allowed us to do as a city was go from the pain and suffering to the healing very quickly.
I loved it when we were talking about what locations to go to next. We knew they were going to celebrate in Kenmore Square. We knew they were going to be down on in Boylston Street. When you live here your whole life you know where people are going to be and, sure enough, they were in Watertown lining the route. Anywhere that the cops were going to be, people flooded out. They came running out of their houses and the pictures were extraordinarily gratifying and I am not going to tell you this didn’t affect me.
I am a Bostonian, and that to me was excellent — to see that reaction.