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Telling old stories in new ways: The 175th Anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo

San Antonio Express-News Alamo Front Page

In the news business, sometimes the worst part about major events is writing about their anniversaries. They arrive year after year with all the predictability and excitement of receiving Christmas fruitcake from your Aunt Helga. There’s usually no new information to offer, and the hapless journalist gets stuck trying to come up with an interesting story.

So I was pleasantly surprised by the Alamo Immortal project published by the San Antonio Express-News, which put a creative twist on the old story of the Battle of the Alamo and its 175h anniversary.

The idea was the brainchild of Dean Lockwood, director of news production at the newspaper. A history buff who knew the big anniversary for the Alamo was coming up, Dean started brainstorming a few months ago about new, original ways to cover the event.

“Sad to say, it’s something that can get a little taken for granted in the media,” Dean told me. “It’s something we cover year after year. You know, the same picture — Dawn at the Alamo.

“We could have gone that route and done the obligatory feature and a couple of other little things and everybody would have been fine with that,” he said. But Dean wanted to try something new, and he brainstormed with art director Adrian Alvarez.

One idea they came up with was retelling the story of the Alamo as if the battle were unfolding before the eyes of an intrepid war correspondent.

There were no journalists who covered the actual battle in 1836, so they went with the next best thing — tapping chief copy editor Bob Kolarik to write articles as if he were there.

“I knew he was a pretty good wordsmith,” Dean said. But even Dean was surprised by how seriously Bob took the job. He stuck with the facts and used actual historical quotes, while having fun writing in the long-winded style of newspapers of that era.

“He took it in such a fun kind of direction but authentic as well,” Dean said.

So for 13 days, with the last dispatch running today, Bob wrote about each chapter of the battle. The stories were published on a spadea, a sheet that goes on the outside the front page. The sepia-colored pages looked decades old, as if they had just been unearthed from dusty archives. And they gave readers a front seat to the historic battle.

Today’s story concluded with the final battle in which almost every Alamo defender died. Kolarik wrote about it with colorful flourishes: “Gen. Santa Anna’s attack this morning on Fortress Alamo began long before the cock crowed, when night was as black as a raven’s heart at midnight.”

The articles included Wall Street Journal-style illustrations by graphic designer >Mike Fisher, whose byline was “xylographer from the Staff.” Page designer Scott Stodard, also a history buff, helped design the pages and research the nuggets of information about the Alamo that ran inside the spadea. And the first day of the series featured artistic photos of the Alamo by Express-News photographer Billy Calzada.

The project didn’t end with the print edition. The paper’s website featured a stand-alone Alamo Immortal page featuring historic photos, graphics, and audio of the Alamo story told in the baritone voice of San Antonio news broadcaster Henry Guerra. The recordings had originally aired in the 1970s.

“Very little of this is new, but for a lot of people, it’s new to them,” Dean said, describing the research process. “It was kind of fun cherry picking all the cool stuff. We usually don’t have the excuse to sweep all the piles of historical dust together and do something cool with it.”

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We often hear how print is dead, or how no one can make any real money on the Internet. But the truth is, both have distinct advantages, and it was great to see them used to full effect in Alamo Immortal. Kolarik’s historic articles were perfect for the printed page. Photo slideshows and audio are one of the strengths of the Web.

I also liked how the Web version did not publish the full dispatches from Kolarik; instead, it posted excerpts and directed readers to the paper for the rest of the story. Not everyone agrees with this approach, but I think it’s OK to give readers an incentive to buy a copy of newspaper, which still generates the bulk of revenue for the Express-News.

Alamo Immortal probably gave the paper a bump in circulation and ad sales. But Dean thinks it’s real value is more intangible — it broke out of the anniversary rut and gave readers something new. This is one of the biggest challenges for newspapers, which enlightens and surprise some days — but can also be as interesting as Aunt Helga’s fruitcake on others.

“It gave people a warm fuzzy feeling about something the Express-News did,” Dean said. “When they think of the Express-News for the next few weeks or months, they’ll at least have that as a little mile marker and say, ‘Hey, they did that cool thing.’

“If we did that five, six, eight times a year, that’s better than … not, you know?”