DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Here's the top headline in last Friday's edition of the Newtown Bee: "Vandalism Leaves Old Headstones Cracked and Damaged." Just hours after that edition of the weekly paper was delivered, Newtown became a headline all over the world. Neena Satija, of member station WNPR, has the story of a small town paper covering - and caring - for its own.
NEENA SATIJA, BYLINE: The Newtown Bee prides itself on having an intensely local focus. John Voket wrote three of the stories on its front page last Friday, all about the area school district. He's been an editor and reporter with the Bee for the past eight years and now, he's covered just about everything.
JOHN VOKET: From mass shootings to a garden club.
SATIJA: When Voket arrived at Sandy Hook Elementary not long after hearing reports of gunshots and ambulances, he became much more than a journalist. He was getting calls from his sources in the police department and from friends, asking if their children were safe.
VOKET: And then I saw the image that will - kind of burned into my brain; which was these two, big, state police officers, with their Smokey the Bear hats and their bulletproof vests; with their arms around each other, heaving in tears. And I knew then, it was really bad.
SATIJA: It was new territory for the family-owned Bee. The publisher found himself out comforting the community while his staff spent the weekend putting out its first special edition in the paper's 135-year history. Editor Curtis Clark began his career here 40 years ago; in this little, red, wooden house about a mile from the Sandy Hook neighborhood.
CURTIS CLARK: This seemed like something that was putting us in way over our heads.
SATIJA: Colleagues asked each other: How can we write about the mass killing of children who we've seen at the local playground, whose parents we know?
ELIZA HALLABECK: I'm Eliza Hallabeck, the education reporter here at the Newtown Bee. I also live in Sandy Hook.
SATIJA: Hallabeck has spent four years covering school concerts and toy drives and graduation ceremonies in Newtown - including a concert at Sandy Hook Elementary just two days before the shooting. And so she's seen her role as a reporter here, a little differently than the rest of the media.
HALLABECK: We've just been trying to help because that's all - that's all we can do as reporters, and as citizens that live here.
SATIJA: The entire staff is juggling reporting while dealing with a phone that never stops ringing.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE RINGS)
UNIDENTIFIED NEWTOWN BEE EMPLOYEE #1: Newtown Bee, may I help you?
SATIJA: People keep calling, asking where they can send donations.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE RINGS)
UNIDENTIFIED NEWTOWN BEE EMPLOYEE #2: At this time, I don't think it's possible for this week. The paper is coming out tomorrow.
SATIJA: And while many other reporters have clamored for access to schools and funerals, staff of the Bee have tried to take a step back; even pleading, on Facebook and Twitter, for all journalists to stay away from victims' families. Were they asking as members of the community, or of the media? Clark says they can be both.
CLARK: We felt it was our duty as journalists, to say to other journalists, please back off. This is not a service to our readership and ultimately, it's not a service that anybody's audience is going to appreciate.
SATIJA: This morning's edition is heartbreakingly different than last week's. There are pages of personal messages, from members of the Bee staff to their readers. A few stories talk about attempts at a return to normalcy. But for a while, says Clark, the routine at the Bee will be very different.
CLARK: It was not part of our repertoire before, to cry as we're doing our job. But we realized in this instance, that we were going to do that. So do it; pull yourself together; move on.
SATIJA: Of course, Clark adds, that's also how most people in Newtown are coping. So if his role as a journalist is to hold a mirror to his community, then he's doing exactly that.
For NPR News, I'm Neena Satija. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.