Tragedy as News (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

Almost as quickly as I saw the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette post news online about a possible murder-suicide at 99 El Dorado Drive in Little Rock on Thursday, Aug. 5, I knew that the house was that of Armistead C. Freeman, who formerly owned the Pine Bluff Commercial with his brother. The Internet is great that way: No more fumbling with an outdated Polk's crisscross directory like we had to when I started my career at the Commercial in the 1980s.

Since the Democrat-Gazette's very first report said an elderly man had called 911, our Internet editor, Lance Turner, started planning for the worst. But a couple of hours passed before Lt. Terry Hastings of the Little Rock Police Department sent out an e-mail confirming that Freeman, 81, and his 75-year-old wife, Gail, were dead. By then it was nearly noon, so Turner posted his initial story on ArkansasBusiness.com and included it in the regular Daily Report e-newsletter that was sent - a few minutes later than usual - to 15,000 subscribers.

There was curiosity on the staff about Freeman's motive - especially since Publisher Jeff Hankins, Sports Editor Jim Harris and Bill Paddack, editor of our special business publications, had also worked for the Freeman family at the Commercial back in the day. But there was no discussion at all as to whether we would report the story. We don't routinely follow the sirens, leaving general crime news to the TV stations and the Democrat-Gazette, but it became an Arkansas Business story as soon as we suspected that the perpetrator of the crime was a well-known, though long-retired, member of the business community.

Even though there were numerous other reports available online, the Freeman story quickly became our website's most-read story of the week, which we measure from Saturday to Friday. But it would not be the most-read story that we wrote during that week.

About 1 p.m. the next day, we got word that Cameron Bradbury, 24-year-old son of Curt Bradbury, COO of Stephens Inc. and an occasional contributor to this op-ed page, had shot himself in the head. Two of Cameron's first cousins, Rachel Bradbury and Ralph Bradbury Jr., work in sales here at Arkansas Business Publishing Group. Our concern and sympathy for our co-workers and for the entire Bradbury family was instantaneous, as was the realization that this was a development - news - that would be of interest to the readership of Arkansas Business and ArkansasBusiness.com. But Hankins, Turner, Associate Publisher Chip Taulbee and I quickly applied the newspaper industry's standard policy on reporting suicides and determined that it didn't fit. Cameron Bradbury was not a prominent person, although his father certainly is, and he didn't shoot himself in a public place.

Shortly before 5 p.m., however, Stephens Inc. spokesman Frank Thomas called me and said Cameron had died about 4:30. He said the Bradbury family wanted to send me a statement. I explained that we had not planned to report the young man's suicide, but Thomas said Curt Bradbury had a message he wanted to deliver about the devastation caused by substance abuse and addiction. I agreed to deliver the news, and the message. I sent a "breaking news" e-mail to our subscribers about 5:10 Friday afternoon. By the time Cameron's family-written obituary appeared in the Democrat-Gazette on Monday, the news of his death would be one of the most-read stories ever on ArkansasBusiness.com.

But reader interest was never a question. The questions were propriety and precedent. Is it my job to break the news of a private tragedy? Is this a precedent I can live with? In the end I have to say no and yes. It wasn't my job, but it was something I was willing to do with the family's permission. And I am comfortable with the decision, although I don't consider it a change in our general policy. I just pray I don't have occasion to follow this precedent.

(Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. E-mail her at GMoritz@ABPG.com and follow her on Twitter @GwenMoritz.)

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