When deadly gun violence gripped the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Monday, Emmy Martin received a flurry of text messages from loved ones asking if she was safe.
As she replied while in lockdown in the journalism school’s library, she realized that this terrifying event, which shattered the students’ sense of security and claimed the life of Zijie Yan, an associate professor in the applied sciences department, was deserving of an equally powerful response.
After the terror subsided, Martin, who was in her second week as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper The Daily Tar Heel, came up with the idea of displaying on the cover a string of real text messages exchanged by students to show the agonizing hours on lockdown.
A copy of Wednesday’s front page shared by Caitlyn Yaede, the Tar Heel’s print managing editor, quickly went viral on social media and was largely praised for the emotions it evoked.
It also drew a response from President Joe Biden, who shared the front page on social media.
“To see people respond so viscerally and people saying, ‘This made us cry,’ made all of us on the staff realize our impact,” Martin, 20, said. “Every one of us has shed tears. It’s just been a lot to process as a student and a journalist, and it has really helped rejuvenate us.”
But the inspiration for the front page did not come instantaneously.
The Tar Heel publishes daily online, but a print version comes only once a week. This week’s print edition was set to publish on Wednesday and was slated to be a 16-page preview dedicated to football season at UNC’s flagship campus.
The shooting, however, took precedence. During the lockdown, the newspaper’s staff filed live updates on its website.
“I immediately went into journalism mode,” Martin said, recalling while she was on lockdown. “I don’t know if that was the way to cope, but we had to get this information out to our community while combatting disinformation that was coming out on social media.”
Later that day, after UNC police gave the “all clear” on campus, Martin said she and other managers at the paper began thinking about what Wednesday’s print edition would look like. They tossed around ideas for the front page, and thought something simple, like a two-word headline, could be compelling.
“What were those words? We didn’t know. Nothing felt right,” Martin said. “Nothing described what those students experienced on Monday. We were unsure of what to do.”
She said she went home and began scrolling through her phone in bed. The texts she received were succinct: “Are you safe?” “I hear there’s a shooting.” “Are you OK?”
On social media, friends were posting screenshots of similar messages.
“And that’s when it hit me,” Martin said, “this is our front page.”
She texted Yeade her idea right away and the next morning asked the paper’s staff to send her all the texts they got during lockdown. Then, the staff got to work picking the ones that best encapsulated the uncertainty and life-and-death feelings of that moment.
On Tuesday evening, Yeade shared an early copy of the front page. Twenty minutes later, it had 1,000 quote tweets on X, formerly known as Twitter, and has since been reposted more than 18,000 times.
Physical copies of Wednesday’s paper ran out on campus on Wednesday.
The response, Martin said, has been overwhelming for the 37 editors and staff of the Tar Heel, which is editorially and financially independent from the university. She said university officials did not reach out to the paper about the front page. The school did not respond to a request for comment from NBC News.
Martin said the focus is now sustaining coverage of the shooting, assigning stories on the professor who was killed, students’ mental health and how various entities responded, from police to the university itself.
The suspected assailant, a graduate student in the same research department as the professor, was charged with first-degree murder and possession of a gun on an educational property. A probable cause hearing is scheduled for next month. Police said Tuesday they are still piecing together a motive.
Classes at UNC were expected to resume Thursday.
“This is definitely a sobering experience,” said Martin, who has since tested positive for Covid and has been quarantining in her room. “But now I see how our work matters so much.”