2019 Breaking News, Small Newsroom finalist

Seeing a Black Hole for the First Time

About the Project

People have been fascinated by black holes ever since their existence was first hinted at in the 1780s; Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity provided more proof of their existence in 1915. But because these behemoths slurp up light, no one had ever seen one. All the “pictures” of black holes were illustrations or simulations.

For more than a decade, scientists have been trying to take that picture for real. It was a huge collaboration, linking together eight observatories around the world to detect faint signals from a distant spot in space that was, as staff writer Maria Temming wrote, “smaller than an orange on the moon would appear to someone on Earth.” Physics and astronomy are key beats for us; we have covered the Event Horizon Telescope effort closely over the years and we started planning our coverage months ahead of a potential announcement in April 2019. The news was a closely held secret, but our reporters worked their sources and got the information in advance, including which galaxy’s black hole had been captured (not every news organization got that right). As a result, we were able to write and fact-check most of the lead story in advance. We also produced a video, a history timeline and a “how they did it” feature with slideshow and video, and developed a comprehensive social media strategy for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Reddit.

Once the collaboration set April 10 at 9 a.m. ET for the announcement, almost everyone in our 26-person newsroom was ready. One of the seven concurrent press conferences worldwide was slated for the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Two of our reporters were there. Our astronomy reporter covered the others remotely from Boston. All three reporters filed to our news director via Slack, with entries fact-checked in real time. We published the lead story with the black hole image at 9:10 am, three minutes after the image was released, and were first up on Reddit’s r/science subreddit. The updated history timeline with the image was published before 10 a.m. ET. Reporters continued updating the stories throughout the day with interviews and with data from the six scientific papers that were published at 9 a.m. in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. They also responded to readers’ questions on social media about black hole science and the discovery’s importance.

That day also posed a particular challenge for us; it was a press day for our print magazine. We assigned one editor to pull all the stories from the Web at 11 a.m. ET and cut them to fit predesigned pages. We had developed two versions of the cover and table of contents in case the resolution of the black hole image wasn’t good enough. Two editors and an art director put the final touches on the magazine pages by noon. By the end of the day, we published an updated video with the new image, as well as readability-adjusted versions of the articles for our sister website, Science News for Students.