How the Manchester Evening News demonstrated vital role of local journalism after concert bombing

After an explosion killed 22 at a pop concert in Manchester the reaction of the city’s daily newspaper was exemplary. The atrocity happened at 10.30pm on Monday, 22 May, and by 9am the following day the paper had 34 pages coverage. An fundraising appeal set up by the title has raised more than £2m. Here editor Rob Irvine provides his account of covering the tragedy:

The first call came from Dave Lafferty, our assistant editor who was night editing. There was a lot of talk on social media about a loud bang at or near the Manchester Arena and people attending an Ariana Grande concert were getting out in a big hurry.

We put out the first tweets to say there were reports of a bang, that police were on the scene, that there may have been an explosion. As I headed to the office, I could see a stream of ambulances racing towards the Arena.

We got a live blog going, set up a later off-stone time for the first edition, and rounded up a crew of extra reporters, photographers, plus digital publishers, social media experts and videographers.

We soon had people reporting on Facebook Live from near the Arena as colleagues trawled social media for video or photos from inside or around the venue.

Greater Manchester Police confirmed there had been an explosion and that there had been fatalities. At first the figure was put at two.

The audience on the website and app was enormous. Social media was teeming with people saying what they had seen, asking for help – and already looking for friends and loved ones who had gone to the concert.

We cleared the first nine pages for the first edition but needed to be off stone by 1.30am, three hours after the blast, to be printed in time for the wholesalers.

As the deadline approached, and with the live blog being updated every few moments, everyone was getting on with their work. Then came a moment that stopped us in our tracks. Lee Swettenham, deputy digital development editor, was monitoring police updates. He looked up from his screen and turned to us.

“Nineteen dead”.

The police also confirmed they were treating it as suspected terrorism.

And so we knew it. The worst terror attack in Britain since the July bombings of 2005 had taken place in our city, at a venue we all know and go to often.

I’ll be honest. I’d never heard of Ariana Grande before that night. I wasn’t the only journalist who had to check the spelling of her name. But it was clear that her core fan base is children and teenagers. Whoever had carried out this attack had set out to kill and injure children.

The first edition was away but the relentless task of online publishing continued, centred around a live blog updated with reports from the scene and from hospitals around the city – plus the coverage on Facebook Live.

We printed a second edition in the morning for home delivery. We upped the run substantially so we could get this edition into retailers and vendors’ stands. We cleared all the adverts to give room for 34 pages, including a front-page wrap.

We worked through the night, 28 of us. Huge numbers of people from Greater Manchester but also from around the UK and across the globe were coming to the site for the latest news.

We had Sky News on the big screen and BBC News also on. We set up every search imaginable on Tweetdeck to find information. We talked to our colleagues at the Mirror to share information. And we kept a close eye on the other big news sites in the UK and the States.

We realised that many people had gone to bed not knowing what had happened. They would wake up to learn that our city had suffered the worst ever terrorist attack in the North of England.

It was all very hard to take in, sitting close to the newsdesk with the murmur of colleagues exchanging information, as they got through endless cups of coffee.

How do you make sense of the senseless? In the early hours of Tuesday I put together a comment piece to try to get a handle on what had happened but also to address how we, the people of Greater Manchester, should respond.

It concluded:  “What can we, the people of Greater Manchester, do to help those who have suffered so much?

“Well, we can do what we do so well. That is we can rally together, just like we did when terrorists wreaked havoc in our city more than 20 years ago (referring to the IRA bomb of 1996).

“Last night people offered shelter for those left stranded in the city centre. Others went to give blood. And even in the small hours of the night, social media was awash with people offering help, thoughts and prayers.

“And today, tomorrow, the next day and beyond, we can show the terrorists who want to destroy our way of life that they can never win.

“We will carry on, we will make Greater Manchester an even greater place. We will care about each other and support our neighbours. The terrorists will fail. We will prevail.”

There was still time to work on the next print edition but with online you need to resist the pressure, the rush to publish.

Get it first or get it right? You want both but if you can only have one, take the latter. Isn’t that obvious?

Not from what I saw in the early hours of Tuesday, 23 May. Some frankly horrible people saw fit to publish on social media fake or entirely unrelated images of missing people. I saw these appear on some “reputable” news websites.

I put out a tweet at 1.21am which said “We will be updating our reports through the night and we are verifying every piece of information with great care before we publish”. This was well received.

As Tuesday progressed, reports of people who had failed to get in touch after the bomb started to emerge. With people taken to several hospitals, it was a very anxious time for many families.

We offered to help those looking for loved ones by circulating details and photos. Our help was appreciated. Meanwhile, the death toll rose to 22 and we had confirmed reports of dozens injured, many of them critically.

For some, the anxiety ended with a phone call from a loved one to say, “I’m ok”. For others, the ominous silence continued. We did all we could to help.

We cleared the front 21 pages of the Wednesday edition. By the end of the day the identity of several of those who died had been confirmed. By the next edition at 9am, we had a number of others that we had taken from the column of missing and added to the list of those who had passed away.

And details were starting to emerge of the murderer, 22-year-old Salman Abedi and his family’s connection with Libya and extremism. I took a decision early on not to picture him on page one of the paper.

For several days, every time we mentioned Abedi we had upset people on social media saying “don’t talk about him”. But we explained that we needed to report on the murderer to help the police find out his movements in the run up to the attack and to point the way to his accomplices.

Early on, we set up a page on the website JustGiving.com to raise funds for the families of the bereaved and injured and began discussions on how to share the funds via the Red Cross. They were also talking to Manchester City Council and soon we had in place the We Love Manchester Emergency Fund, of which I am now a trustee.

The MEN has received contributions and pledges totalling some £2.3m. Overall, at the time of writing, the grand total of the Emergency Fund has topped £10m and first gift payments to the bereaved and injured are already being made.

Key events followed, with the Great Manchester Run, a mass participation 10km race on Sunday, becoming a demonstration that the heart of Manchester is bruised but in no way broken.

The symbol of Manchester is the worker bee, and people queued up in their thousands to have one as a tattoo. As a first lasting tribute, we commissioned a graffiti artist known as Qubek to create a mural honouring those killed. It is now on the outside wall of a popular city centre cafe, called the Koffee Pot,  and features 22 bees, one for each of those killed, buzzing around a Manchester heart.

A front page of a special tribute supplement published in the weekend edition of the MEN featured the words of the poem This is the Place, performed so memorably by poet Tony Walsh at the vigil the day after the attack.

The image, with the words picked out to show a huge heart, has achieved iconic status and we are now selling versions on posters, mugs and T-shirts to raise money for the appeal.

I was personally very honoured to be able to tell Prince William about the success of the appeal when he visited Manchester to meet some of those injured and to talk to the first responders who rushed to help those caught in the explosion.

Just twelve days after her concert, Ariana Grande returned to Manchester to stage a massive benefit gig along with megastars such as Justin Bieber and Katy Perry. We were nervous that it was too soon but it turned out to be a huge hit, with a TV audience peaking at 14 million. Many of those who were at the Arena were there, including some of the injured.

There has been so much to take in; the sea of flowers in St Ann’s Square where crowds looked on in respectful silence; the terribly sad images of the first funeral as Eilidh MacLeod, aged 14, was laid to rest on the remote Scottish island of Barra.

Armed raids across Manchester became part of a grim daily routine as police closed in on a terror cell that was based in our city.

There was the out-of-the-blue call from the editor of the Boston Globe, who arranged a delivery of pizzas for the newsroom. He recalled the pressure his team had been under four years ago when the Boston Marathon was attacked by terrorists. It was a lovely gesture.

We had so many messages of thanks from our readers, who were grateful for the sensitive way we had reported the tragedy. Part of the challenge was deciding what not to publish.

For example, it was clear from looking at other sites that graphic descriptions of inside the foyer after the bomb was causing huge upset. We had avoided those anyway. We did not publish any photos from inside the foyer. They didn’t add any understanding to what had happened and they were just upsetting people and turning them away.

As for the future, this is an event that has redefined our city. So how are we going to deal with that? How do we come to terms with the fact that a young man, born and raised in our city, could turn so violently against us?

It is early days but we feel the MEN has the means to do something. And we have a duty. We reach so many people every day, more than any other organisation in the city. What can we do to connect communities? How can we make all forms of intolerance and discrimination unacceptable? What can we do to make everyone hate “hate crime”? And what can we do to stop anyone hurting our city like this ever again?

I also have so many people to thank.

Outgoing editorial director Neil Benson and his successor Alan Edmunds and Trinity Mirror digital publishing director David Higgerson worked with editors across the Trinity Mirror network to assist us.

We have had reporters, photographers and videographers from across the UK. We booked them into hotels near our office in Chadderton or in the city centre. They have been amazing, they just got on with the job like they had worked here for years. I have been bowled over by the talent we have seen but I shouldn’t be because I know what talented editors they work for.

I wrote a second comment piece which we published on the Saturday after the attack. I said to our readers:

“The journalists at the Manchester Evening News have been honoured to write the stories of all the good in this city and we have been humbled by the dignity of those who have shared with us and our readers the stories of those they have loved and lost.”

I added:  “And I am proud of, and humbled by, the dedication, commitment and professionalism of all of the journalists at the Manchester Evening News and MEN Media. Let me put on record here my thanks to my team.”

The journalists at the Manchester Evening News do indeed have a great deal to be proud of. They have demonstrated, in the most trying conditions, the vital role that highly professional local news journalism continues to play.

Comments

1 thought on “How the Manchester Evening News demonstrated vital role of local journalism after concert bombing”

  1. The atrocity was of course an exceptionally big national/international story, but nevertheless it is regrettable such an incident was needed to galvanise the usually dozy MEN into action.

    It, and other withered mediocre papers, should demonstrate the vital role of highly professional news journalism EVERY day, not just dabble in it occasionally.

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