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Northern Star’s student-journalists
professionally tackle Feb. 14 challenge

March 3, 2008

by Mark McGowan

“Our students are finishing up the paper. They’re doing 8 pages, no ads. The first story went up on the Web site at 3:59 p.m., less than an hour after this started. All day, our students have come through as the whole world watched. While they were turning out their own stories and photos, we must have been interviewed by every news outlet in the free world and beyond.” — e-mail to Northern Star alumni from adviser Jim Killam, 12:20 a.m. Friday, Feb. 15

Stacey Huffstutler, a photographer for the Northern Star, heard the news immediately after her Spanish class in DuSable Hall as she chatted with the professor.

“I had my camera with me because I was supposed to go photograph a cat being checked out at the vet for the paper the next day,” says Huffstutler, a junior journalism major. “I just grabbed my camera and said, ‘I work for the Star. I have to go.’ ”

Huffstutler ran outside the building toward Cole Hall but quickly returned when a friend told her that one of the wounded students had made it to DuSable.

“I just pulled out my camera and started taking pictures,” she says. “It was hard for me to understand what I was supposed to be doing because I didn’t understand the situation yet. I’d never been in that situation. I’m usually photographing a charity event or a rock show. At one point, somebody asked me to put my camera away. I said I felt obligated, and I continued to take pictures. I said I was sorry that it was happening, that I was trying to be most respectful and that I would use them in the most respectful way.”

Within a few hours, after she downloaded her images back at the Star’s office, news media around the world posted and published some of her photographs.

As a student of journalism, she felt pride. “At the same point, I felt bad. It wasn’t something to celebrate,” she says.

But “personally, as a student, I think it’s terribly tragic,” Huffstutler says. “I don’t think there’s anything that could’ve stopped it or explained it. It really made me reflect on everybody else all over the world who deals with violence on a daily, weekly or monthly basis in their lives. It’s really brought to my eyes what that does to a community and what that does to an individual.”

“It’s 5:30 p.m. Friday. World Media Avalanche, Day 2, seems to be winding down. You know there’s not much new information when the media starts reporting about itself. At one point late this morning it was impossible to take three steps in the newsroom without tripping over a TV camera crew. But it was never a bad or unmanageable situation – our students’ first priority was their own stories and photos, and that was completely understood. Pro journalists – including many Star alums – have been unfailingly gracious. They’ve also recognized that the incredible job our students are doing is indeed part of this story.” — Killam

Northern Star editor in chief John Puterbaugh knows Amie Steele, editor in chief of Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times.

Puterbaugh met Steele last year at a national conference for college newspaper editors. They ate dinner together with some of the others. He heard Steele speak at a conference session about Virginia Tech’s tragedy, the topic of which still merits at least one new story every day in her newspaper, she says. They exchanged cell phone numbers, and have talked periodically throughout the past year.

None of those encounters prepared him for Feb. 14.

“She sent me a message that day – a text message just telling me that her thoughts were with me,” Puterbaugh says. “I called her on Friday and talked to her for a little while. In a way, it was comforting to talk to someone who at least knows what we’re going through.”

Driving back to campus Thursday from a trip home to see his family in Indiana, Puterbaugh says the brief respite from NIU and the Star provided opportunity for reflection.

He’s given “maybe 20 or 30” interviews, including to the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and “every TV station.” Nearly every reporter has asked the same question: “What was going through your head?”

“The answer is nothing. Nothing was going through my head,” he says. “We weren’t trying to coordinate or plan. We were just acting and reacting. That was everyone’s first instinct. We sorted stuff out later.”

Puterbaugh is proud of the staff. They’re a close-knit bunch of good friends who are always together, he says.

What they’ve experienced, he confirms, is terrible and amazing. What they’ve learned, he adds, is that “you’ve just got to do your best to react to the circumstances.”

“We don’t need to tell people it was a tough, hard experience. We all were doing what comes naturally to us in the most unusual of circumstances,” Puterbaugh says. “We realized shortly after we’d gotten started Thursday that the way the majority of us were going to get through this … was to come together and do what came naturally and to restore what bit of normalcy we knew.”

Yet the emotions, and the realization of that altered normalcy, eventually arrived.

“I told my parents I loved them for all the kids who could not, and that was tough,” he says. “When I got home and gave my parents my hug, and felt them hug me back, that brought me to tears, thinking of the parents who can’t do that now. Anytime I thought about the parents at NIU, that was too much for me. That what was brought me to tears.”

“Maria (Krull) and our advertising staff gathered here at the Star this afternoon to honor Dan (Parmenter) and comfort each other. There’s a bell on the wall in our ad department, that they ring when someone makes a sale. They ended their time together by ringing that bell for Dan.

About an hour later, the whole newsroom staff went to a room with no phones ringing and no outside journalists present, just to talk and decompress for about 45 minutes. Some needed a few minutes just to cry; all of us just needed to talk as friends first, journalists second. 

And then everybody went back to work.” — Killam, 5:52 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15

Jim Killam worked as a newspaper reporter and editor in Beloit, Belvidere and Joliet before he became adviser to the Northern Star. He’d covered car accidents and house fires during his career, he says, but really nothing worse.

And yet the father of three, one of whom is a student at NIU, found himself dashing out of the Campus Life Building that afternoon along with the young journalists. The paper’s advertising manager handed him a camera on the scene; three or four of his photos graced the front page of the next morning’s USA Today, the New York Times, the Washington Post and more. CNN, Fox News and MSNBC used his pictures extensively the first night.

He soon returned to his role as adviser.

There were logistical questions about what to print, about updating the Web site, about whether to publish during the week of closure. There also were distractions. Professional media were “taking cues from us. We were the first media responders just because we were so close.”

And there were emotional issues. Dan Parmenter, an advertising sales rep, was among the dead.

“Dan’s desk is the same way it was before all this happened,” he says. “We’re not going to do anything with that for the time being.”

The weekend brought another chance to talk and to analyze – the Northern Star became the keynote event Friday at the Illinois College Press Association convention in Chicago, and a few members of the staff held a question-and-answer session – and a mandate to work. A 24-page issue was published Monday.

Like Puterbaugh, Killam is amazed by his staff’s professionalism.

“They sprung into action as soon as we knew something was going on. They’ve just done incredible work through this whole thing, and I am completely impressed and proud of them,” he says.

“You wouldn’t call any of this a good experience, but it’s been a good experience for them to see what life is like on the other side of a notebook or a microphone,” he adds. “And they’ve learned – a lot of them – that journalism is what they want to do. If you’re not sure about journalism, this is either going to tip it one way or the other.”

Killam also has outside confirmation of his pride.

During a Wednesday morning staff meeting in the Department of Communications, someone asked for the best source of accurate information.

“I said, ‘Read the Star.’ People started applauding. They realized these students have done such incredible work,” Killam says. “This campus may not realize exactly everything that goes on here, but they do need to know what a great job these students have done.”