The Game of the Name
After the Dawson College shootings, four Toronto daily newspapers raced against deadline and each other to get one crucial fact. Here's how two of them got the scoop... and two didn't
It’s mid-morning. Tu Thanh Ha is at work writing a story about a Canadian astronaut’s spacewalk. He’s been up since 4 a.m. covering the event and expects to head home soon from The Globe and Mail‘s four-person bureau in Montreal.
As Ha types, The Toronto Star‘s news editor Alan Christie arrives at 1 Yonge Street on Toronto’s waterfront. He sits behind his large desk and watches the news broadcast from a nearby television. Both Christie and Ha have no idea what kind of day they’re in for.
Over in the National Post‘s newsroom in Don Mills, editors throw story ideas around at their morning meeting. Meanwhile, Post nighttime news editor Scott Stinson has been up for hours and will head into work soon. Back downtown, Stephen Hui, one of the Toronto Sun‘s editors, prepares for work as his colleagues begin piecing tomorrow’s paper together.
Chris Carter, the Star‘s online editor, weaves through the mass of desks, ringing phones and chatting people in the newsroom. He’s touching base with the other editors of Star PM, the new afternoon online paper. Though it’s only 1 p.m. and the first edition of Star PM doesn’t go online until 3:30 p.m., the front page is already laid out and almost set to go.
Suddenly, the newsroom bustle increases to a frenzied pace. The televisions tuned to CNN and Newsworld blurt words like “shooting,” “Montreal” and “students.” Twenty minutes earlier, at 12:41 p.m., the first bullet sliced through the air at Montreal’s Dawson College. By the time word reaches Toronto newsrooms, two lives have ended.
Ha’s phone rings in Montreal. His colleague Ingrid Peritz calls from home.
“Have you heard?”
“I’m coming down.”
Ha hangs up and heads to the subway – he’s 15 minutes from the scene.
In Toronto, Carter and his staff prepare for the chase.
“This is going to be a big story,” he thinks.
If Carter tracks down the shooter’s name he’ll scoop his competition – but he won’t be the only one searching.
While editors overhaul Star PM‘s front page, Scott Stinson arrives at Post headquarters. He walks into a newsroom scrambling for the most recent information. Someone calls up the Post‘s business reporter in Montreal and tells him to stop whatever he is doing. Soon, two more Post reporters in Montreal are contacted, including one on maternity leave. They’re all sent for the story.
Minutes before the Montreal subway is shut down, Ha steps off a train and finds the Dawson College exit closed. He’s swept into the tide of bodies exiting into the nearby mall. There, an even larger crowd anxiously walks out of the mall: there may be a gunman on the loose and the mall is being evacuated. As Ha walks, he interviews people.
Back on King Street in downtown Toronto, Hui arrives at the Sun offices to the same newsroom flurry: “Three shooters,” “16 injured,” “two gunmen dead,” “12 hospitalized.” Stinson watches a CBC live broadcast on a television in the Post newsroom: “We can now confirm four people are dead,” the report states.
“Be careful here,” Carter tells his Star staff, “the information is changing so quickly.” At 3 p.m., half an hour before Star PM‘s first edition goes online, its staff meets. Because Star PM is only weeks old, Ram Mohabir, project manager on the technical side, sits in. Currently, the system allows for two updates. Carter, turning to Mohabir, says, “We’re going to be wanting to update this thing beyond five o’clock.” Mohabir puts in a call to extend the deadline, and soon the system is operational until 9 p.m.
By evening, the details become clearer. Montreal police chief Yvan Delorme explains that police in the Dawson College vicinity on unrelated business heard gunshots at 12:41 p.m. The gunman, armed with three firearms, ran into the college and began shooting randomly. At least 20 people were injured. One female student died at the scene. Police shot and killed the suspect.
Reporters stand outside Montreal’s General Hospital and recite numbers to the cameras: nearly a dozen ambulances, eight people in critical condition, three undergoing operations. There is still no word on the gunman’s name.
Carter leaves the newsroom at 7 p.m., an hour and a half later than usual. Star PM has published five versions throughout the afternoon, rather than its usual two. Slowly, the night crew has started to arrive. Christie isn’t going anywhere. He settles in for the second half of what has turned into a double shift.
On most nights, Hui would be leaving the Sun‘s offices and heading home too, but tonight he remains at his desk. He emails and phones back and forth with editors of Journal de Montreal, a Sun Media sister paper. All afternoon they’ve been providing updates to the Sun. Managing editor Gord Walsh prepares for the Sun‘s copy deadline at 9 p.m. He tells his news team, “Let’s get everything else out of the way so we can concentrate on Dawson.” He needs that name.
Ha sips on another cola in his Montreal cubicle: the adrenaline from the day has worn off. He spent several hours interviewing distraught students and now he and Peritz settle in to write. They’ve just gotten off the phone with Globe national editor Noreen Rasbach in Toronto and the plan is to piece together a reconstruction. It is unusual for a national paper to cover municipal crime, so Ha and his colleagues don’t have police sources to contact. Instead, Peritz zips chunks of writing Ha’s way via email from the next cubicle. Ha pieces the facts together and prepares a final copy as his 18-hour day draws to a close.
As the first editions of the Sun and the Post run off the presses, Christie sits in the middle of the newsroom amidst about 20 staff. They swirl around him, writing, rewriting and watching the wires. It’s 10:25 p.m., 20 minutes to first edition deadline.
A phone rings. It’s for Christie. The voice on the other end of the line utters the words he wants to hear. “We got it,” Christie thinks. The voice belongs to someone at La Presse. The Star and La Presse have been in contact throughout the day, mostly sharing pictures.
The air changes and Christie is excited. “It’s Gill Kimveer,” he tells his staff. They won’t make the first deadline, but they have an hour and a half to rewrite the paper.
Thirty minutes later, as the first edition of the Star prints, with the identical front page picture the Globe uses, the phone rings again. “We got it backwards,” the same voice tells Christie. “It’s Kimveer Gill.”
Furious fingers work the keyboards. It takes mere minutes to find a website called VampireFreaks.com and the pictures that put a face to the name.
At almost the same moment the phone rings in the Sun and Hui picks up. It’s someone from La Journal. “Great, let me know when you confirm it as soon as you can.” He doesn’t have a name yet, but something almost as good: a promise it’s coming.
Christie and Hui share similar thoughts as the clock ticks beyond 11 p.m. They both picture a new front page, and they both think they have an exclusive.
At the Post, Stinson would normally be leaving, but tonight he stays behind, scouring Montreal area websites for something, anything.
The next morning Stinson leafs through the Post that gets delivered to his door. Most days he checks the other papers online, but today he doesn’t want to see them. He knows there is a good chance somebody else got the gunman’s name.
It isn’t until Stinson walks through a mall on his way to work that he sees the first two words in the Star‘s headline: Kimveer Gill. Below is a picture of a young man wearing a leather jacket, proudly holding a gun. A moment later, he reads on the front page that La Presse identified the killer late the night before, and relaxes a little. He figures that’s how the Star got it, through its relationship with La Presse.
The Sun also displays a picture of the shooter, as he aims a gun into the reader’s face. The headline begins with the word “exclusive.”
by Rachel Hahn
Rachel Hahn was the Senior Editor for the Spring 2007 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.