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Tim Reiterman, survivor of airstrip attack, tells story of the Jonestown mass murders

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When Tim Reiterman set out to tell the story of the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown mass murders and suicides, he didn’t want to retread territory he’d covered with previous anniversary stories, or rely solely on his own harrowing experiences in the South American jungle.

Instead, Reiterman, global environment team editor based in San Francisco, mainly focused on those he hadn’t interviewed before, including the adopted black son of the Rev. Jim Jones. He also focused on those who grew up in the Peoples Temple, or joined as teenagers. These survivors, due to happenstance or their own efforts, were all away from the Jonestown community in Guyana when Jones ordered his followers – starting with the young children – to drink flavored poison.

The order that ended 900 lives came after a California congressman, temple defectors and journalists including Reiterman were ambushed on a nearby airstrip. The Nov. 18, 1978 attack killed Rep. Leo Ryan, D-San Mateo, as well as Reiterman’s photojournalist colleague at the San Francisco Examiner, and three others. Reiterman was wounded in the attack, but went on to shoot photos of the bloody aftermath and write a detailed account two days later.

Reiterman’s approach to the 40th anniversary provided an unparalleled look into the massacre through the eyes of survivors who had to go on grieving close family members and forge new lives back in the United States. It also allowed Reiterman the opportunity to explain the tragedy and put the Peoples Temple in context for readers and viewers who might only know its broad outlines, if that. The all-formats package Reiterman wrote and helped coordinate – with assistance from staffers in all formats throughout the AP – wins this week’s Best of the Week.

The package included profiles of six survivors along with photos and a video interview conducted by Terry Chea and produced by Marshall Ritzel with John Cobb,who was born into temple life and lost 11 relatives. Eric Risberg anchored the photo package,with portraits by him,Jeff Chiu and Brynn Anderson in Miami. Editor at Large Jerry Schwartz edited the text piece and an abridged version. Katie Oyan,the West Region’s enterprise editor,helped coordinate all elements and get the stories and visuals to the wire and handsomely displayed on APNews. She worked with Reiterman to format and secure usage of his 1978 account for the San Francisco Examiner, written while he was recovering from his wounds at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

Digital News Producer Trenton Daniel interviewed Reiterman via Skype,using archival visuals to weave past and present together. West Desk staffer Annika Wolters edited a social promotion video that has been viewed more than 32,000 times.

The text story landed on nine front pages,including one newspaper that ran it and Reiterman’s 1978 account on the front page of its Sunday edition.

The package,as one judge noted,put the mass murder in clear,heartbreaking terms not only for audiences who remember it well,but also for readers and viewers who are not old enough to remember the tragedy. For telling a familiar story in a compelling,all-formats package, Reiterman wins this week’s Best of the Week award.

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