The tip came in to Gary Martin, the politics and government editor for the San Antonio Express-News, at around 1 p.m. Central time. About 2½ hours later, the story was online, and the world knew that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was dead.
“We just started working off the tip,” Martin said by phone, not long after the Express-News’ piece went live. “I think we found out about it as it was kind of unfolding. Everywhere we were going, there was no comment. … We were just chasing people we knew in the area and people we knew who had contacts and just kept working those.”
The death of a Supreme Court justice might be the definition of a national news story. The fact that it was first reported by a local newspaper is a dramatic reminder of just how valuable it can be to have seasoned journalists in place when big news happens.
Of course, the definition of “local” is relative when it comes to Texas. If you’re driving, the headquarters of the Express-News—which is owned by the Hearst Corporation and has a circulation of about 130,000—are about seven hours from Cibolo Creek Ranch, where Scalia was staying overnight when he died. As it happened, though, Express-News reporter John MacCormack was out doing a story in nearby Marfa when Martin heard the news.
“I told him what I knew, and he got there,” Martin said. “He went to the sheriff’s office in Marfa first, and they told him they didn’t know anything. Then he went down to the ranch and he was politely asked to step off the property but he stayed across the street. … He was outside the ranch when the hearse pulled up.”
According to Martin, Scalia was discovered in his room this morning. “I guess he got to the ranch last night,” he said. “He was at a party with about 40 people. He went to bed last night and he didn’t show up to breakfast in the morning and that’s when a person with the ranch went to his room and found him.”
Confirming the story took a team of seven, Martin said—not a trivial number of people to wrangle on a Saturday, when the paper usually operates with a skeleton crew. Reporters worked their contacts in Texas’ Western judicial district, a massive area that includes Austin, El Paso, and San Antonio. The Express-News’ team called judges, federal marshals, congressmen, and other local sources to shake loose whatever information they could, Martin said. “We knew it was true but we kept getting denials for the first hour—the ranch said nothing happened, the Sheriff’s Department [in Presidio County] said nothing happened.” Slowly but surely, though, they pieced it together.
Martin wouldn’t say exactly how many sources he and his team had when they published their blockbuster around 3:40 p.m. Central time—only that they were local, and that there were several of them. “A story like this—you can’t walk it back if it’s not right.”