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Tragedy activates news teams

First came the news that it was a commercial airliner that struck the house and not a small private plane. Then came authoritative word on the specific airline. Then a general idea of the number of people aboard.

I was doing what so many did on Thursday night: I channel-and Web-surfed madly. I was searching for information by the crumb on a horror story unveiling just a few miles away; I wasn't setting up a media contest to see who was the winner.

And yet when Thursday night was over, I had a crystal clear hierarchy of media outlets to whom I was grateful for simply "getting the story." I have never been prouder of the newspaper I work for and I know I'm far from alone thinking that. It's a common sentiment around here, even among people not given to common sentiments. On Thursday night, the Buffalo News Web site had major news developments first every step of the way.

In subsequent days, the online News might truly be said to have fully come of age.

After that, clearly, were Scott Levin and Channel 2 News.

There is nothing like a major unfolding disaster to test the mettle of a news anchor. It is a near-certainty that Buffalo's news anchors will never again be tested the way they were on Thursday night when details of the worst air disaster in local history 40 minutes before air time unfolded slowly during the 11 p.m. news.

Levin was an ideal, unflappable synthesizer of the information he had, which, courtesy of Channel 2's news team, seemed to be coming in faster than it did at Channel 7 or Channel 4.

After Levin and Channel 2, I was enormously grateful that purely by chance one of Buffalo's 11 p.m. news anchors -- Channel 7's Keith Radford -- was conversant enough with aviation to be able to apply something that actually resembled expertise to the subject. No one understood the context of new facts better.
Certainly, Channel 4 was due enormous credit for setting up cameras and broadcasting the first official press announcement live when neither of the other stations had it. But that was quite literally all I could be grateful for on Channel 4 on that terrible night.

I wanted information on what happened. And, on TV, Levin and Channel 2 gave it to us the best.

But even more than that, my sorrow deepened that in the age of information, newspapers are having such a rough time of it. There is simply no question that at that incomparably horrible moment in the history of Western New York, no news organization had more trained and dedicated professionals working to find out what was going on than this newspaper did.

It has struck me repeatedly since the Web began causing daily and weekly journalism to have a protracted public nervous breakdown, how much young people are missing by assuming that newspapers and magazines no longer matter.

When a horrible story unfolds, what you're watching is the actual news gathering process laid bare and it's not pretty.

Now that newspapers are online, that process can be seen on newspaper Web sites. When, on Thursday night, the News' Web site reported that state police reported a U.S. Air flight involved, it was inaccurate. But, vastly more important, it was the first indication anywhere in local media of the size of the plane involved and the magnitude of the tragedy.

It is not a graceful process, to be sure. But on Thursday night so many of us were reminded by our colleagues just how -- and yes, I use the word advisedly -- awesome it can be to watch it in action.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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