Thorough reporting on Kobe Bryant tragedy gives sports section APSE's top breaking news award.
July 26, 2021

"Demand for answers" drives L.A. Times' Kobe crash coverage

Christian Ortega

It was supposed to be a day of rest. 

Richard Winton, a Los Angeles Times investigative crime reporter for more than 25 years, woke up to a foggy morning and planned to tidy up his Calabasas, California townhouse. Until he heard an unusual sound of what he assumed was a plane flying too low. Then a crash. 

“I hear a massive boom,” Winton said. “The kind of boom you hear when an 18-wheeler hits something.” 

His instincts took over, and he raced out to find the source of the noise after tipping editors that a plane crashed nearby. First responders raced by. Some, because of the poor visibility, missed the scene and had to turn back around. 

Eventually, the flames broke through and when he arrived at the scene, one of a handful of reporters at the time, he noticed countless pieces of a helicopter scattered throughout the San Fernando Valley. Half an hour later, he filed a story about the incident, unaware of what was about to unfold. 

As Winton was sipping his coffee, Kobe Bryant, his daughter, Gianna, and seven others were on board the helicopter that fateful morning. The pilot lost his sense of direction amid a fog thick enough a knife can cut through it and crashed straight into the face of the canyon, killing all of the passengers. 

Winton and the rest of the LA Times staff wound up spending the rest of that morning breaking the news that eventually captured first place in APSE’s Category A Breaking News 2020 contest. 

The story was developed over 12 hours and generated 63 million social media impressions. While Winton, Tania Ganguli, Dan Woike, Sonali Kohli and Ben Poston received the story’s byline, 41 other reporters worked tirelessly to ensure everything reported was prompt and bulletproof. 

“There was such a demand for answers,” Chris Stone, the Times’ executive sports editor, said. “The Times, as it does with these types of stories, regularly was positioned to serve the readership.” 

At the same time of the crash, Wokie and Ganguli, who cover the Lakers for the Times, was on a plane from Philadelphia. The night before, the Lakers played the 76ers, and LeBron James passed Bryant for third in all-time career points. 

As Wokie and Ganguli received news alerts, they jumped on their laptops trying to vet the news and relay it to the reporters at the Times’ office. 

“It was really, really frantic,” Wokie said. “I remember texting all my sources hoping they would go through because plane WiFi isn’t that great.” 

As reporters gathered information from across the city, Ganguli and then Poston sifted through Slack messages as they flooded in to provide readers timely updates behind what was happening. 

There were misleading reports. Some outlets got the number of passengers wrong. Others misreported that the entire Bryant family was on board the helicopter. Everyone on the Times’ staff understood that racing to get the news first wasn’t worth risking accuracy. The Times never had to issue a correction throughout the day’s reporting. 

Through the madness, each reporter had space to find key details to add to the story. Poston noticed the sheriffs grounded all helicopters that morning because of the fog, something an experienced pilot should’ve taken into account before flying through the valley. 

“If police don't feel comfortable flying, then you know, then that was definitely a sign that it was far from ideal conditions,” Poston said.

Over the course of the day, the staff balanced writing the news, investigating the helicopter’s flight patterns and creating graphics that told the story of the helicopter and its passengers’ final moments. 

The goal that day was to deliver the news to readers, not to win an award. But in the end, the readers got the news and the award the staff received serves as a testament to the dedication of the entire news team.

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