It was almost 6 p.m. when we discovered in the newsroom that Andrew Stack, the pilot who attacked the IRS building in Austin, was a graduate of the Milton Hershey School, right in our backyard.
For my first 2.5 years at The Patriot-News I covered the residential school for underprivileged children, so I offered to help find classmates who knew him in the 30 minutes I had before I needed to leave for another commitment. I first checked the two main online forums where alumni gather — the Milton Hershey Alumni Forums and TheMilt.com — but no one was discussing it yet.
So I turned to Facebook. I searched for “Milton Hershey School,” but there was no discussion on the school’s main fan page, nor in several other general groups. I searched for “Milton Hershey School alumni,” but no luck there either.
Then I tried “Milton Hershey School Class of,” hoping to find his specific graduating class. Wouldn’t you know it…the very first match was a 33-member group for the Milton Hershey School Class of 1974, which was Stack’s year. As Maeby Funke would say: “That was a freebie.”
Less than an hour earlier, one classmate had written on the group’s wall:
I’m in disbelief…it’s apparently our Andy Stack that crashed his plane into the building in Austin Texas today…I read his “manifesto” online, and he even mentions living in Harrisburg after graduation…I can’t belief it…
I sent him a message, respectfully explaining that I was a reporter who was looking to speak to classmates who had a recollection of him. I sent the same message to four others who had posted recently on the group’s wall.
At this point, as is always the case with using social networks for reporting, you simply cross your fingers and hope that someone is motivated to respond. I find my success rate is usually about one response for every five or six messages I send out. I personally had to get going — my dodgeball team was counting on me! — but I had given the classmates our city desk number, so I was free to leave.
I was literally standing up from my desk to leave when an editor said someone was on the phone for me. It was one of the classmates, and it had been less than five minutes since I had messaged him. I can miss the beginning of the dodgeball game for this, I thought, so I took the call and got a great interview. From my story:
Several years ago, trying to find lost graduates of the Milton Hershey School class of 1974, Mike Macchioni tracked down a man in Texas whom he hadn’t seen in 35 years.
“He was polite, but very abrupt,” Macchioni recalled. “He said he didn’t want to have anything to do with anyone from the Milton Hershey School or the Milton Hershey School itself. He didn’t give the reasons why, but he said, ‘You know, it’s nothing against you personally. That’s just the way it is.’ ”
Macchioni then asked if he could update the man’s contact information in the school’s directory.
“He said he didn’t care one way or another,” said Macchioni, a Hershey native. “He was always very short-tempered. He always struck me as very odd, but brilliant. Smart as hell.”
I filed that and a little bit of the locally relevant material from his “manifesto,” assuming it’d be an addition to an AP story or a break-out, then got up from my desk to leave.
Once again, my phone rings.
It’s another of the classmates I had messaged. This one considered himself friends with Stack. Stack was the bassist in his band — he even remembered the band name, The Mythical Maze — and offered some insight into Stack that no one else would be finding:
“Even though we were practicing all the time and really trying to do well as a group, Andy was still distant,” he said. “He was a part of the group, but he wasn’t the party kind of guy. He wasn’t the type that wanted to get together with his buddies. He was off on his own.”
At this point, I know I’m not playing in any dodgeball game tonight.
I quickly type up the two interviews I’ve got, and all of a sudden I’ve got a 15-inch story that came out of nowhere and took less than an hour to assemble. Just when I hit the send button, I get a message from a third classmate on Facebook:
“Andy was always a little off and unsteady,” Mottin, of Sewell, N.J., wrote to The Patriot-News. “He also had a hair-trigger temper. Plus he had a brilliant mind. Combined, they were a highly volatile cocktail just waiting to explode.”
A few things to remember out of this (the final story is here):
1) I would not have been able to find these sources if I weren’t already familiar with the school and the advanced searching abilities of Facebook. What if the aforementioned online forums, not Facebook, were the home of all the discussion, and I didn’t know those forums existed or how to find them? It highlights why, as a beat reporter, you need to know where every ounce of online discussion in your area is happening.
2) This all came together in less than an hour, after hours, but any reporter familiar with using Facebook for reporting knows there’s nothing extraordinary about what I did. If you’re in a hurry, you have to know how to use these tools before they’re quickly needed.
3) If you’re a reporter who happens to be well-sourced with every graduating class of the last 40 years in every school district in your area, more power to you, but most of us aren’t. For the rest of us, the value of a network like Facebook really shows up in stories like this.