I first heard about the April 15 attack on the Boston Marathon as I was reviewing the announcement of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners, timing that now seems fitting since there will likely be Pulitzer-worthy material generated from coverage of the explosions.  

As a news consumer, my hunger for information about the tragedy was instantaneous and insatiable. More importantly, that hunger didn’t dissipate after viewing one website, or even after I went home and spent the evening with my family. The in-depth and locally-angled pieces published the next morning and for weeks following were just as critical as social media and breaking news alerts had been on the day of the disaster.  

This struck me as pertinent, because for quite some time now, newspapers have been roiled in discussions of what should come first. Print first, mobile first, digital first, audience first — all have become both company slogans and rallying cries of modern media. That one department should take priority over the rest of the business is now a commonly-held belief among many well-respected newspaper executives.  

But what the Boston Marathon bombings showed us is that, when it comes to addressing our current challenges, we’ve been asking the wrong question.  

It doesn’t matter which element a newspaper puts “first.” In times of crisis and disaster, what matters is total, unequivocal coverage. We can’t afford to give any one medium priority over the others, because readers are looking for as much information as possible from every medium. After the bombings, papers lacking a Tuesday print edition were just as disadvantaged as those lacking a strong Twitter presence.  

On the day of the blasts, digital media played a critical role in reporting the tragedy as facts became available: What happened? How many were injured? Who witnessed it? Was there any other threat? Who was responsible? It also helped in the equally important task of debunking false information.  

The next morning, a scan of Newseum’s collection of front pages from around the country yielded a dramatic array of banner headlines, haunting images, local angles, quotes from multiple witnesses and law enforcement officials, all converging in the type of pithy narrative that requires more than 140 characters to effectively convey.  

When news of this magnitude breaks, newspapers can’t prioritize any one method of coverage over the others; they need to do it all and they need to do it well. With a few notable exceptions, newspaper coverage of the tragedy in Boston has been exceptional on all platforms, if only because the tragedy struck an event that already had a large number of journalists in place.  

This blanket coverage shouldn’t end when the streets are swept clean and everyone goes home for the night. Digital, print, social, and mobile must all have an equal stake in coverage, and budget-cutting execs should take note that having paid staff members on the scene is still the best way to achieve that result.


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