I had dinner yesterday with Facebook supporters for Lauren Spierer, many of whom have been at or led events like poster hangings and the six-month commemoration in December. At one point in the dinner, I realized that at this time last year I hadn't met any of these people. On June 3, 2011, I was a recent IU alumnus, fresh from a class reporting trip to Hawaii and unsure of what the future held. My near future, of course, would be quickly set.
I had finished taking photos at the Bloomington Craft Beer Festival on June 4; it was over 90 degrees there, so I took a much-needed nap at about 3pm. About two hours later, if my memory serves me correctly, my photo editor at the time sent out a mass text to the staff about people handing out fliers downtown for a missing student. I was still a bit fatigued, but I picked up my camera and drove around the square to look for these people. I didn't find any of them, so I drove down to Third Street and got my first photo of the story.
I then went back downtown and met two other IDS photographers, and we sat at a table outside Scholar's Inn Bakehouse. A woman approached us, handing us fliers with Lauren Spierer's name and face on them. I told her we were with the IDS and that we were on the story, and she thanked us. The look in her eyes, akin to the care of a mother, was the first thing that made the story real to me. I had never lost my camera, let alone a child, so how could I ever understand enough to report the story with any justice? That woman's willingness to be active so early in the search for a woman who was not her daughter moved me into the story more than anything else.
Except, of course, for meeting Lauren's parents, Robert and Charlene, the next day. Their struggle and determination that day both broke my heart and inspired me.
You know the rest: the next day, June 4, was the first of 25 straight days of public searches for the 20-year-old IU student. In that time, the Bloomington Police Department briefed every day for two weeks, Smallwood Plaza had some of their hard drives taken through a search warrant, a white truck went from prime suspect to just a coincidence, and countless people made Lauren's life a part of theirs by helping in any way they could. I met Rabbi Sue Silberberg, Don Cranfill, John Summerlot, and a host of other very good people that June, and I saw how closely and how quickly a community could unite to support one another.
I also saw how good a student newspaper could be. Lauren was a student, just like us, so the IDS staff was uniquely prepared to report her disappearance with urgency and sensitivity. We also belonged to the Bloomington community, whereas other news outlets had the luxury of coming in, reporting everything they could, and leaving without facing direct consequences from any unfair reporting they may have done. We were going to stick around after the story died down, so if we did something wrong, our readership would remember, and our credibility would suffer.
Because we kept all that in mind, we led the story in the first few days. CJ Lotz rode in Robert and Charlene's car on that first day of searches; news of the Smallwood search warrant went quick as lightning to the website; and every time I said, "Hi, I'm Alex Farris with the IDS," the source's face would light up, and he/she would sometimes reply, "You guys are doing such a good job! Thank you!" I was extremely proud of the IDS in those moments, and if the story hadn't been such a heartbreaking one, I would have been happy, too.
Of course, professional news media have done well, too. Shawn Cohen of The Journal News, especially, has provided fair and in-depth coverage, which is well summarized in today's issue and in the paper's multimedia presentation (which features some of my photos and police-briefing video).
The news in that presentation is what the supporters were talking about over dinner as I snapped back to the present. It's been a long year...