2016 Breaking News, Medium Newsroom finalist

Emanuel AME Church Killings

About the Project

Shortly after 9 p.m. on June 17, 2015, police scanners in The Post and Courier’s newsroom exploded: “Bodies! Shots fired! Gunman!” A killer was gunning down worshippers at historic Emanuel AME Church. Somehow, lying amid the blood inside Emanuel, one worshipper called 911 on her cell phone as the killer pumped the last of more than 70 bullets into the dead and dying.

That time of night, our newsroom was almost empty, but within moments the night staff filled social media, including Facebook, with “breaking news” about police and emergency vehicles swarming downtown Charleston near 110 Calhoun St. amid unconfirmed reports of victims.

At 9:40 p.m., just 30 minutes after the newsroom scanner erupted, police reporter Andrew Knapp, tweeted the first report that at least 8 people had been killed. By that time the newspaper had rallied all available reporters. On social media they quickly made The Post and Courier the go-to source for the latest details on what would become one of the nation’s most deadly, modern-day, racist crimes.

Despite how late the story broke, the newspaper owned every major development, and we launched a homepage takeover to make it easier for people around the world to find the latest news. In the spirit of public service, the newspaper disabled its paywall so all could read our content for free.

Our reporters made extensive use of social media to relay news as it broke, tweeting photographs and using Periscope to broadcast press conferences, protests, memorials and other events. Though the Post and Courier has a circulation of about 69,000, breaking news about the event posted on the newspaper’s Facebook page reached more than 6 million people.

The reporters repeatedly updated readers as police mounted a manhunt for the killer who had fled the scene of the killings and reportedly was spotted roaming amid the historic city’s narrow streets and alleys. Each report was shared or retweeted, often by thousands. The public, alerted by news reports, would become a watchdog for police after they released the identity and photo of the suspected killer. The suspect, Dylann Roof, was arrested late the next morning after a North Carolina resident spotted him as he fled north in his car.

By that time, The Post and Courier’s web page was reaching more than 8 million people, with a full account of the hate murders, the suspect, the victims, Emanuel AME church and its founding in slavery.

The newspaper’s online reporting provided readers a live view of the suspect’s bond hearing and the stunning forgiveness offered by the victims’ family members when the judge offered them a chance to speak.
The newspaper’s breaking coverage didn’t stop with that. Within two days of the killings, the reporters pieced together the first full, authoritative account of what exactly happened inside the church as the killer methodically gunned down the worshippers spewing a racial diatribe along with bullets.

A day later, reporters detailed a troubling account of the suspect’s online racial screed justifying the killing of blacks.

The city’s mayor and police chief later credited the newspaper’s rapid, thorough and accurate reporting in print an online with helping to keep Charleston united and calm amid the backdrop of race riots in Ferguson and Baltimore.