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AP RELIES ON WARM SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY IN A CRISIS-Photos from school shootings in Arkansas reach wire service from staffer's home

When is a house not a home? When it's a bureau. Chris Ritter knows firsthand.

Once a photographer at the Jonesboro Sun in northeastern Arkansas, Ritter was wooed by the Associated Press to join its technology marketing unit. Now he works from home, hawking items such as the NC2000e digital camera and associated software.

All of it -- experience, location, technology -- came into play on March 24, when children and teachers at Westside Elementary School in Jonesboro came under fire in the schoolyard. Four children and one teacher died; two young boys are in custody.

Ritter was at home when he got a call from Barry Arthur, photo editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, asking Ritter to help find a rental car for one of his staff. "At that point, I didn't know anything about it," Ritter says of the shootings.

"I knew the situation was already being pretty well covered by the Jonesboro Sun because I had hired and trained those guys," as well as equipping the 25,000-circulation morning daily with two digital cameras. But "I knew that three-man staff was going to be overwhelmed when a news event of this size hit them."

When he got to the Sun, the three photographers and two or three reporters with cameras were at the school. The paper's two associate editors, Mike Overall and Larry Fugate, told Ritter to "set up and do what you need to do." His first task: install two pieces of software, AP Shooter and AP Viewer, on the newsroom's lone Mac.

"AP Shooter saved my butt," Ritter says. "I couldn't have done it without that software." With Shooter, an Adobe Photoshop plug-in based on the ScanPrep Pro image-handling product, and Viewer, which attaches a caption and creates a preview in one step, Ritter had a quick-and-undirty way to move film or digital photos from Arkansas to the State Photo Center in Washington, to which AP bureaus file their photos.

By 3 p.m., the first image -- taken on film by a Sun reporter -- was in Washington. By the long day's end, Ritter had filed 21 images. "I was doing all I could to get what I could in from the member, the Jonesboro Sun, in and up the pipe."

The work Ritter did was "invaluable," says Mike Marucci, photo editor and night supervisor at the State Photo Center. In a breaking news situation, "the most important thing is getting the images out. You're talking hours of delay without him there." The 21 photos Ritter filed that day was "an unusually large number for one person," notes Jeff Franko, photo editor and day supervisor at the AP center.

Ritter had many photos to use.

"How do you explain this kind of horror to somebody? But when you start looking at the photos, it sure comes home," Ritter says. Lodged in his memory is a photo of a rolling stretcher carrying a body bag -- "a powerful, powerful image that just really told the story."

To get that story, Sun staffers came and went, dropping film for the first five hours or so, taking a digital camera when available and heading to "multiple sites -- they were really stretched thin," Ritter says. With five or six people bringing film, "it was a lot of noses down and elbows up." The film processor was "running pretty much continuously for the next five days," souping four rolls at a time, Ritter said.

As AP photographers experienced in covering tragedies began to arrive, logistics loomed. Local hotels had electronic switchboards that played havoc with uploading digital files. So, a house became a bureau as Ritter turned his residence "into a command central for a little while for AP." Its three phone lines allowed photographer Mike Wintroaph to plug in a scanner-transmitter Leaf IIID. Another AP photojournalist, Mark Humphrey, had a PowerBook and Nikon scanner.

"We worked out of here all day and well into the night Tuesday night and part of Wednesday morning," Ritter says. When Rogelio Solis, a photographer who had covered a school shooting in Pearl, Miss., arrived with a road darkroom, it was time to move.

Pammy, Ritter's wife, "has been in and around newspapers long enough that she didn't say a word about it," Ritter says, but the AP staffers felt they were imposing. The family-owned Sun opened its doors; later, when Publisher John Troutt Jr. quickly returned from a trip, he made a conference room available and ran phone lines just for AP coverage.

When the first two funerals were held March 27, Ritter dispatched J. Pat Carter, an AP photographer who had covered the Oklahoma City bombing, to one funeral home. "I could be the runner while he stayed through the end of the service at the funeral home."

The first photos from a 10 a.m. service were on the wire at 10:32 a.m., taken by photographers who "had the sensitivity to step back and shut up" at the right moment, Ritter says, diminishing "media backlash" and helping to ensure access to unfolding news.

Proud of his AP and Sun colleagues, Ritter says the experience reinforces the need to devise a contingency plan and "to stay current with the technology."

"I'm sorry such a tragic event happens," Ritter observes, "but it did prove the mettle of what we were trying to do with this software all along."

-- Pete Wetmore
COPYRIGHT 1998 The Cole Group
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:NewsInc
Date:Apr 13, 1998
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