The Lac-Mégantic train disaster: What The Montreal Gazette learned

By Catherine Wallace, Montreal Gazette managing editor

Lessons learned or reinforced in The Gazette’s coverage of the Lac-Mégantic train derailment and explosion:

By Catherine Wallace, Montreal Gazette managing editor

Lessons learned or reinforced in The Gazette’s coverage of the Lac-Mégantic train derailment and explosion:

  • The ongoing changes in the news industry make it easier for a newspaper to set its own policies and not worry about the pack mentality.
  • Putting a priority on being sensitive toward the people you’re covering is the right approach for those people, the journalists on the ground, the newsroom as a whole and readers.
  • Journalists will want to stay on the scene a day longer than they should on an emotionally wracking story. They will still be doing great work so the temptation is to listen to them. But from the start, editors have to be planning for the long haul: rotating people through, preventing emotional burnout.
  • Brainstorm and focus, brainstorm and focus, every day. Spend significant time discussing direction, how to keep the story moving forward, trying to see what's coming next, keeping the bigger picture in mind.
  • While you're posting as often as possible online, use the daily print paper as a way to focus — through the Page 1 theme and the inside packaging.
  • You can always scale coverage back but it's very hard to catch up — on the story itself and on internal newsroom momentum — if you start too small.

The Lac-Mégantic derailment was, from the start, clearly a tragedy on a big scale, with so many elements: a geographically beautiful town, close-knit, with a historic centre, built around a railway; a train, oil, derailment, explosion, and of course dozens of people missing. The dimensions and complexity of the tragedy only grew with each day.

Throughout the first week we had a rotating cast of four reporters and three photographers on the ground, and almost all the remaining news reporters were working on other angles from the newsroom. We covered only one or two other local news stories each day. We knew we wanted thorough coverage of the tragedy and devastation, but we also wanted forward-looking coverage of the transport of dangerous materials, the growth in the use of trains to carry oil, the historic positioning of railway tracks, environmental damage and the other big ongoing issues around this story.

From the start, city editor Michelle Richardson made it clear to the journalists in Lac-Mégantic that they should concentrate only on what was happening there, and not worry about trying to get the wider story —  we would do that from the newsroom, where we had reporters and editors anxious to be part of the coverage.

We work in a city with an astonishing amount of news. Sometimes I worry how long we can keep up: collapsing infrastructure followed by a spring of student protests followed by an election-night shooting followed by corruption inquiries and arrested mayors, interspersed with mob violence and terror suspects …

But there is nothing, nothing that vitalizes and rewards a newsroom more than being part of good coverage of a meaningful story.

And when I say good coverage, I mean coverage the newsroom is proud of: a mix of depth, breadth, beautiful photos and beautiful writing for sure; but it’s just as important to have an approach it is proud of.

From the beginning of our coverage, we stressed the need for sensitivity. This was a town that had been devastated – the extent of the devastation becoming clearer each day — and we absolutely didn’t want anyone associated with The Gazette pressuring residents to talk. A horrific tragedy like this brings out so much compassion and shared horror in so many people; it should bring out the best in journalism too, not the worst. It is, as a couple of our reporters said, a privilege to be there to tell this town's stories to the world.

The city editor and I kept coming back to the issue of victims' names: when should we publish a list? We were compiling names, and using them in stories as residents talked about their missing friends and family. But it could take weeks or longer to find all the victims and identify remains. What was the respectful approach? It doesn't help that in Quebec the police and the coroner's office generally have a policy of not releasing the names of any victims, of any accident or crime. (Ultimately, the coroner's office decided to release the Lac-Mégantic victims' names as their remains were identified and their families were informed.) 

But in the absence of an official list, when would we publish ours? We decided to wait for as much certainty as possible. We knew other news organizations could beat us to it — some did — but we made the decision not to be pressured on this. It was part of our decision to treat the town's residents with respect. Lac-Mégantic is 216 kilometres from Montreal and largely francophone, but Quebec really is like a village, and we wanted to take the same care we would have if our subscribers had been involved. 

Not so long ago, we would have felt great pressure to be competitive on this, to be first with the list. But as it has become clear that no one outlet can be all things to all readers, and no one can cover all the news that's fit to print, we are finding ourselves freer to set our own path on what we will cover and how we will cover it. Other news organizations would make a different call, and maybe the journalistic world is stronger for having these different approaches.


Catherine Wallace is managing editor at The Gazette in Montreal. She has worked at The Gazette (twice), the Toronto Star (twice) and the Globe and Mail. She is a native of Montreal. Wallace was part of a team that won a National Newspaper Award for special project at The Gazette, and a team that was runner-up for the same award at the Globe.