2016 Feature, Large Newsroom finalist

Taken Hostage


About the Project

The predicament was hideously novel: How do you free a boy in a locked, windowless, underground bunker from an unstable man armed with a bomb and a gun?

The ensuing standoff between authorities and a kidnapper in Alabama drew attention for about a week in January 2013. Americans, accustomed to the slow parade of violent news, were briefly fascinated. But after most people moved on, Wall Street Journal reporter Michael M. Phillips returned to find out what really happened.

In “Taken Hostage,” an interactive story of extraordinary and exclusive detail, Mr. Phillips described how Jimmy Lee Dykes joined the slow parade, an angry loner with a grudge against the government and a message he demanded the world hear.

Mr. Dykes was 65 years old and estranged from his family. He lived in a trailer in rural Alabama “growing vegetables and collecting grievances.” He carried in his wallet a scrap of paper with phone numbers for the White House and Senate. And on Jan. 29, 2013, he fatally shot a school bus driver and then stole one of the dead man’s passengers, 5-year-old Ethan Gilman.

“Hostage” revealed elements of our society’s most dysfunctional depths, and its highest character, when Americans in their workaday lives respond to crisis with loyalty, heroism, resourcefulness and humility:

  • a teenage student delivering a moment-by-moment account to a 911 operator: “We’re on the bus and somebody is trying to take our kids”;
  • the bus driver standing up for his young passengers: “Sorry, you’re going to have to shoot me”;
  • an inexperienced sheriff’s deputy left to negotiate with a madman, guided only by the long-ago advice of his parents about listening to others;
  • FBI agents risking their lives to save a boy;
  • a woman coming to terms with a role in her father’s death.

Combining compelling storytelling and innovative contemporary presentation, “Hostage” spanned 6,500 words over a landscape of videos, audio recordings, photographs and original illustrations, truly 21st-century journalism. Using a video montage to open the story, “Hostage” created a reader experience that seamlessly integrated technology with masterful reporting and writing.

“Hostage” required a commitment by the Journal, as well as by readers. Competing with minute-by-minute news and social postings, the story drew more than 1.4 million page views, with readers spending an average time of nearly 14 minutes, a lifetime in the digital age. It was one of the Journal’s longest articles of the year and its most popular.

Will long-form journalism survive the mobile age? “Hostage” shows the answer is yes, as long as the story is well told: 95% of its digital readers experienced “Hostage” on mobile devices. One local resident wrote: “As I read it, so many emotions flooded over me. I have never read an article like it before. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time even though I knew how it turned out.”

The U.S. government mustered a Boeing 727 filled with technical and logistical experts, engineers, commandos, arms and attack dogs to answer the terror threat of a single man. But readers also learned that among the heroes in the seven-day-crisis were a 66-year-old grandfather, a sheriff and a local deputy who learned as a boy “If you keep your mouth shut and your ears open, it’s amazing what you’ll hear.”