But sometimes, the bodies have to get shipped back home.
That was just one of the interesting angles the Las Vegas Review-Journal explored in a dynamic 36-page tab on death called “One Sure Bet.”
The intense emotional highs and lows of Sin City have been thoroughly documented, but this section dug into what happens after the final die has been cast, and the steps leading up to that fateful moment.
“One Sure Bet” was the culmination of months worth of work by the paper’s staff, and was born as a quarterly premium section intended to drive circulation revenue.
“The idea had roots in something I’ve wondered about: What percentage of people in Las Vegas are intoxicated on any substance at the time of death?” said Deputy Editor James G. Wright. “I’d been thinking about it since an otherwise upstanding local man was shot dead by police. He was acting a little odd but doing nothing illegal in a store. A worker saw he had a (legal) concealed weapon and called 911.
“Three cops stopped him as he was leaving the store and shouted at him to drop the gun. He responded by pulling it, along with the holster, and pointing it in the direction of the officers. Turns out he had a bad back and was so loaded on pain meds he likely had no idea what he was doing would be taken as a threat.”
The idea fermented after that 2010 shooting. In July of this year, Wright and all 14 reporters, their editors, the photo editor and online director were circled in a meeting. Through that process, they combined some similar ideas and added a couple more stories.
Wright said topics were chosen, but under the pretense that reporting could forge a new direction, if necessary.
“I outlined about two-dozen stories around the theme and chose 14 City and Business reporters, based mainly on their regular beats. For example, medical writer Steve Moore did the stories about hospice and medical breakthroughs; social services reporter Yesenia Amaro did stories related to child abuse deaths,” Wright said. “Reporters were told nothing was set in stone — if the idea didn’t pan out or reporting took them in a different direction it would be fine as long as changes were coordinated. They were also told they needed to keep working their beats while doing their death reporting.”
A four-section story set was finally agreed upon: A peculiar place to die; How we die; Nearing the end; and Afterward.
Some of the individual offerings made tremendous reads, among them:
Database Editor Adelaide Chen assembled a portfolio of statistics tailored to each story for use by the reporters and worked with Gabriel Utasi at GateHouse’s Austin-based Center for News and Design to build graphics. Chen, Ana Ley, the writer of the overview piece, and Wright also met with the county coroner to ensure that his office would provide data that they don’t normally release. Wright sent the coroner the project budget to underscore that this was a special effort, and he and his staff responded with unprecedented access.
“We met as a group each week leading up to publication. Ideas were refined, information was shared, photos and graphics were coordinated,” Wright said. “After the publisher signed off on a glossy-cover tab we worked with Keith Saunders at CND on production deadlines and a backout schedule. All told, 36 people had a significant role in producing the section.”
Pulling the section off wasn’t easy, but Wright said the key was staying on top of assignments, beginning with the planning process.
“The weekly meeting is the key to pulling off a project with this many people and moving parts. It keeps people focused and allows you to refine as you go, make sure photos and graphics are done in parallel, and avoid waiting to the end to fit everything together and fill holes. The back-out schedule is also crucial,” Wright said. “Everyone knew (his or her) role and the deadlines for each element of the product, and that the whole thing would fall apart — letting down the entire team — if they did not hit their individual mark.
“No one wants to let down the whole team.”