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How the Daily Oklahoman got the story (Winter 1997)

by L.A. Dickerson, Michigan State University School of Journalism faculty and former crime and breaking news editor for the Detroit Free Press

They assure you they're just fine. But in talking with reporters at the Daily Oklahoman, the tears flow when a word or image brings the horror of that April day rushing back.

And when they speak of the victims they covered and still keep in touch with, it's apparent that they are talking about FAMILY. People, once strangers, who will now be part of their lives forevermore.

From Day One, the Daily Oklahoman staff members say they followed one simple rule, though they were in the midst of one of the most competitive breaking news stories ever covered . . . worldwide. The needs of the people -- not their stories -- were what was most important.

"This was our hometown. The people involved were our families and our friends," said managing editor Ed Kelley, who, reporters say, set the tone for the paper's caring attitude. "I knew we would get the exclusive stories, which we did. But we did it on our terms.

"The people who lived here came first in everything we did. And I couldn't be prouder of the result."

Most times than not, reporters found the family members of victims were happy when their hometown paper showed up on their doorstep. But there were also those who wanted to be left alone.

"We did whatever was asked. If someone needed space, we gave it to them, we didn't push," said staff writer Diana Baldwin.

Reporters from around the United States and the world converged. And everyone wanted one particular story. Find the mother of the tiny baby girl whose image would personify the horror of the bombing - little Baylee Almon. The child had been photographed being rushed from the scene in the arms of a firefighter. Media outlets, print and broadcast, picked up the photo and the world mourned when it was learned that one-year-old Baylee had died.

Police reporter Penny Owen, through a source, learned of mother Aren Almon's whereabouts and went to the secret location where she and her family were hiding from reporters.

"Aren didn't want to talk. So I just stayed with her a bit and then I left. I told her that I would be in touch, but that if she never wanted to tell her story, that was okay, too," Owen said.

So Owen kept in touch. On one visit, Aren shared photos taken weeks earlier of Baylee at her first birthday party - the day before the bombing. Most of all, the reporter and mother simply got to know each other.

Weeks later, Aren called and said, "I'm ready."

Owen's caring and patience paid off in a big way, with an exclusive front-page story. And, as many reporters found, Owen's relationship with the Oklahoma City woman evolved into a friendship.

"The people - not their stories - came first," said Owen, echoing the words of several colleagues.

"The one thing we knew through all of this was that we were doing the right thing when it came to the victims and their families," agreed Baldwin. "That was the most important thing. And I think for most of us, the only thing that mattered in light of what had happened to ALL of us."