How Nice-Matin covered the Nice attack on the web

There are sentences that you never want to write. Events that you never want to cover. And then reality catches up to us… Nothing you can do about it. At Nice-Matin, on the evening of July 14th, we all encountered this. From very near or from a little farther away. Horror.

Unfortunately, all newsrooms know horror.

But for us, the night of July 14th was very different. Different from the Paris attacks, in particular. Everywhere else, the horror was the same, but not for us.

And despite the shock, sadness, and fear, we had to work in an atmosphere that was necessarily particular. Coming to terms with these facts while terrorized by the idea of seeing the face of a friend or parent appear on Facebook among the people marked missing. Writing while calling everyone dear to us to ask them if things were all right, and responding to the texts, e-mails, etc. of friends in order to reassure them. It was very strange. As if we were looking at this terrible event from the inside and the outside at the same time…

A few days after the attack, I watched my friends and colleagues continue to work nonstop. For more than three days, we had been working live continuously, and I thought to myself that I would one day have to describe how we covered that attack, as a local journalist. Not how we experienced it (Jérémy Collado has described this quite well here), but how we organized ourselves on the web to handle this unusual event. A project post-mortem (in the worst sense)…

The evening of July 14th…

It was a very normal evening at the web desk of Nice-Matin. Beyoncé’s arrival at an amusement park in Antibes had kept us occupied all day. And as the evening began, it was the snowflakes that had fallen in the countryside (in July!) which had us excited. I, for my part, was at the Promenade des Anglais to attend the fireworks display. I wanted to share it via Facebook Live on Nice-Matin’s page. The catch? The “Prom’” was so packed that the connection was not working. In the end, I spent the entire show railing against that fucking network.

10:32 p.m. The fireworks had been finished for a few minutes. The truck began its gruesome work, passing me from five meters away. I ran to take shelter in a restaurant and called Margot, who was working at the web desk. “Something insane just happened, a truck charged us down after the fireworks. Everyone’s running around, everyone’s screaming, it’s chaos. There must be dozens of casualties. There are injured people everywhere.” Three minutes later, Margot wrote: “Panic on the Promenade des Anglais after a truck charged into the crowd at the end of the fireworks display.”

Just a few lines. Simple. Very factual. The very first to appear about the events of July 14th.

They are a perfect example of the way all the Nice-Matin teams handled the attack, both in print and on the web. Our watchwords: precision, speed, reliability, and empathy, while eliminating voyeurism and sensationalism.

And it was not easy.

… the site crashed

This “short news update” quickly spread through the Internet, while most of the live news channels were playing a loop of… the finale of the Paris fireworks display. The problem: our site crashed just before midnight. Far too many simultaneous connections for our servers. And visitors from all over France and the world…

So we found ourselves without a website, without a back office… with an event that we knew was planetary, but about which we did not know anything yet.

We quickly decided not to wait for everything to return to normal. And to continue to update the live feed via the social networks Facebook and Twitter — in order to inform the people of Nice about developments in the situation, to pass on warnings from the authorities, and especially to debunk the thousands of rumors that accompanied them. But also in order not to add fear to terror. Later, we mentioned those rumors only in order to debunk them through fact-checking by reporters in the field. And to try to provide a bit of reassurance…

Organizing to avoid chaos on the web

It was 11:30 p.m. The journalists at Nice-Matin, whether from the print or web departments, showed up to the newsroom instinctively to lend a hand, all aware of the tragedy that had taken hold of us. A team of reporters left for the scene of the horror, in order to learn what had happened. At the newsroom, messages from our Internet followers poured in. There was an enormous amount of testimony to the horror they had experienced. Some informed us that hostages had been taken in a restaurant, others that a second team of terrorists was firing gunshots in the Old Town of Nice, etc. All of the difficulty of the story lay in not giving into panic ourselves… It was not easy.

In the web department, we tried to organize rapidly to avoid sinking into the chaos as well.

Two journalists would report live and would remain in contact with the news teams in the field and the reporters in charge of the investigation, in order to guarantee news that was 100% reliable, verified, and sourced. Exemplary collaboration which ought to serve as a model for us in this ongoing work of building print/web complementarity.

One community manager journalist to update our networks and debunk rumors.

Two journalists, also concentrating on social networks, searching for eyewitness accounts and missing person reports — which often, unfortunately, turned into death reports…

Every new piece of information was published on Facebook, which we had transformed into a news feed in the style of Twitter.

Every two hours, we published a summary which we pinned to the top of our page.

Trying to organize mutual assistance, finding stories to restore faith.

It was our job to provide the latest information.

It was our obligation to use as much distance and neutrality as possible in handling the political debates which, very (too) quickly, replaced the emotional reactions.

We tried to honor the victims as well as we could. And it was the least we could do.

What we tried to focus on the “day after” was finding a bit of humanity in the midst of the chaos: describing acts of bravery and solidarity by those who, on that night, listened to their hearts instead of giving in.

On Friday morning, Nice-Matin decided to create a private group on Facebook devoted to solidarity and mutual assistance in the wake of the attack. It was something that we had already started during the crisis of October 2015, when we had created a “crisis solidarity” page in an attempt to centralize any information which might arise on social media. The goal: to connect people in need with those who wanted to help them. Why? Because, as Benoît Raphaël, who has been guiding us in the web department for over a year, has drilled into our minds: “Being a news medium in the 21st century does not mean just distributing news, in print or on the Internet. It means making the readers of the news into actors. Being useful. Making a connection. Above all, not leaving them powerless in the face of bad news, but helping them to find solutions.” A vision shared by Denis Carreaux, the Managing Editor: “Our role is not just to inform, but to make a local connection; and thanks to the power of our headlines, we can help.”

Internet users showed up immediately, with nearly 5,000 subscriptions within the first few hours. At first, the posts were mainly searches for loved ones in danger. Some had happy endings, like the woman who found her missing baby safe and sound. Others, unfortunately, did not. This group also became a trading place for offers of assistance. I remember several individuals who offered a roof to the families of victims during the days following the attack; or clothing, games, or their car so that they could get around easily. I also remember a woman who offered horseback rides for families who wanted to catch their breath a little.

Many people also wanted to offer financial support. That gave us the idea of organizing a collection for the victims’ families. This was, again, something we had already done during the crisis of October 2015. In the end, we gathered over €25,000, which were sent to the Foundation of France.

The group still exists today. People feel a need to express themselves, to draw, to post poems there to express their solidarity with the citizens of Nice and the victims of the attack. Sometimes it is a bit more chaotic, with more controversial messages and even, shall we say, conspiracy theories.

A memorial honoring the victims

85 victims. 85 faces which will remain in our lives. We, too, sought a way to honor them. During the Paris attacks, we had all been very impressed by the work of the Le Monde journalists with #EnMémoire (#InMemory). So we decided to create a memorial. The simplest possible. Their photos (if their family had granted permission) and a bit of biographical information.

And now?

A month after that terrible night, not a day goes by that I do not think back to that terrible evening of July 14th. Images, flashes, noises come back to me endlessly, as if it were all still there. As I told my friend Jules Darmanin, who works at Buzzfeed, it will be a long time before all the citizens of Nice recover. Because it is the Prom’. Because it is a place of life, celebration, and meetings. Because that is where I went jogging, like almost everybody. Because that is where I celebrated my high school graduation (again, like almost everybody). At the end of the day, it has been nearly a month and I still cannot bring myself to set foot on the Prom’.

As for work, it is the same. The main challenge is returning to “normal” sites. Not easy. On one hand, life is starting back up, and plenty of things are happening here. On the other, that cursed night of July 14th is still in everyone’s mind. All you have to do is look at the huge panic that occurred in Juan-les-Pins or the nearly daily bomb alerts.

Not easy. I myself struggle a lot. At every editorial meeting, I feel as if I am replaying the consequences of the tragedy in an endless loop, even a month later. As if, aside from that, nothing is serious, nothing is important, everything is meaningless. I know it will pass. But when?