“Annie Le is missing”

The Nieman Journalism Lab has posted a lengthy excerpt from Chapter One of “The Wired City.” You can read the entire excerpt here. What follows is a much shorter version — an excerpt of an excerpt, if you will.

Paul Bass felt uneasy. It was a Friday — Sept. 11, 2009. He was getting ready to leave the office for Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath. And he was beginning to wonder if he had blown a big story.

Two days before, Bass had received an email from someone at Yale University telling him that a 24-year-old graduate student named Annie Le was missing. Could Bass post something on his community website, the New Haven Independent? Sure thing, Bass replied. So he wrote a one-sentence item with a link to a Yale Daily News account. As he recalled later, he didn’t think much about it after that.

Now Bass was facing a dilemma. Annie Le was still missing, and the media were starting to swarm. He was off until Saturday night; as an observant Jew, he does not work on Saturdays until after sundown. On top of this, his managing editor, Melissa Bailey, was leaving town for a few days. Bass remembered reading somewhere that Le had once written a story about students and crime for a magazine affiliated with Yale. He found it, linked to it, and wrote an article beginning: “A graduate pharmacology student asked Yale’s police chief a question: ‘What can one do to avoid becoming another unnamed victim?’ Seven months after she printed the answer in a campus publication, the student may have become a crime victim herself.” It was a start — nothing special, but enough to get the Independent into the chase. Then Bass went home.

As it turned out, the Annie Le saga — soon to become a murder story — developed into one of the most heavily publicized news events to hit New Haven in many years. Her body was discovered inside a laboratory wall at Yale Medical School on Sunday, Sept. 13, the day she was to be married. The grisly fate of the beautiful young Yale student proved irresistible to the national media. From The New York Times to the New York Post, from the “Today” show to Nancy Grace, reporters, producers, and photographers besieged city and university officials.

The story proved significant to the New Haven Independent as well. The Le case was exactly the sort of story Bass would normally have been reluctant to pursue. The Independent’s focus was on the city’s neighborhoods and quality-of-life issues, not Yale, which Bass believed got plenty of coverage elsewhere. “I was an idiot about the whole thing,” Bass told me at La Voz Hispana de Connecticut, the Spanish-language newspaper in downtown New Haven where the Independent rents a cramped office. “We don’t want to overdo Yale. That’s not our community. You don’t want to say one life is more important than another. But by Friday it’s hitting me. ’Cause now it’s been a bunch of days, and it’s feeling creepy. People were writing about it, and we were resisting writing about it. And then I said, you know what? I might be really missing it here.”

Once Bass overcame his misgivings, the Independent’s dogged coverage earned the site national attention. Readership, which Bass said was generally around 70,000 unique visitors a month at the time, more than doubled in September to about 197,000. But the Le case was more than a way to garner attention and build an audience. It also became an opportunity for an online-only news outlet with a tiny staff to prove that it could keep up with — and, in a few instances, surpass — far larger and better-established media organizations. (Click here to keep reading.)