Behind the Story: Covering The Fire that Burned Down The Sub

DSC_0061Getting Started

During the first week of class, my group and I got together for the first time and brainstormed story topic ideas. Annie, who was assigned print, shared her interest in The Sub fire and mentioned that no news organization has done an in-depth investigative story on the fire or status of the business and building.

We all had many questions. Why is the burnt building still untouched one and a half years later? Why aren’t more reporters talking about this? Was it an arson or accident? My group and I quickly decided that this would be a great story opportunity for Mustang News.

Journalism seniors Nicole Peterson and Mariam Alamshahi work on planning the story during class.
Journalism seniors Nicole Peterson and Mariam Alamshahi work on planning the story during class.

After an hour-long phone call between Annie and Owner of The Sub Richard Ferris, Annie quickly realized how complex this investigation would be – this was going to take more than just two weeks.

Annie shared her thoughts and discoveries with our instructor, and we were given four weeks to cover our story. However, we were still given new roles for the second two weeks of the project. Regardless, we thought four weeks should give us enough time to find and talk to enough valuable sources and uncover all the information we needed.

The Process

The process of covering this story was a long and complicated one. We realized we would need multiple components and many different sources for each. I initially received many responses to my social media posts on Facebook and Cal Poly Reddit when I asked what people know or would like to know about The Sub fire. I gathered several sources during the first week and set up a few interviews for Annie to begin her digging.

However, it wasn’t all that easy. It quickly became very difficult to find sources who were willing to provide information and records about the fire because it is a part of an ongoing investigation that’s potentially tied to a crime.

Once I switched to multimedia halfway through, I posted on social media looking for witnesses. This time, no one responded.  I mean, it’s not a surprise that no one wants to get involved in a crime related investigation; nonetheless, I was frustrated as time was ticking and no one was responding…

After doing a lot of digging, though, I found and interviewed a drive-by witness and two managers of The Sub who were present during the fire.

In addition to finding sources, some of us struggled with our roles. Nicole, who is concentrating in public relations and had no video experience prior to this project, was first assigned broadcast.

“I struggled a little bit with the focus on the camera which led my video to turn out blurry. I ended up having to set up another interview but eventually was able to get it working correctly. Overall, it has been a learning experience.” – Nicole

Journalism senior Nicole Peterson films the inside of the San Luis Obispo Fire Department.
Journalism senior Nicole Peterson films the inside of the San Luis Obispo Fire Department.

One of the most rewarding experiences, however, was capturing the 360 degree virtual tour of the inside of The Sub on a $5,000 Matterport camera (with our instructor’s help, of course). Nicole and I had to keep Kjerstin Ferris, who allowed us inside the building, entertained for the three hours that it took to capture the entirety of the building. But dang, it was worth it – the scan turned out awesome!

The Result

Over the course of four weeks, my group and I produced one main written story on the fire with an accompanying sidebar story on the history of The Sub, two broadcast videos, and six multimedia components (one slideshow, one quiz, one Matterport scan, one before and after comparison image with a slider widget, and two Thinglinks).

Rather than writing a second story on The Sub fire, Mariam decided to write about the history of The Sub in a sidebar element.

“I thought it would be best to give the shop some life, to paint a picture of what the history was like to our readers who had never visited.” – Mariam

Mariam also interviewed loyal customers of The Sub from every decade since it opened and included their memories of The Sub in her Thinglink.


Although we each faced different struggles when covering The Sub fire, the hardest part was dealing with two very different sides to the same story.

The Sub ‘family’ is strongly convinced that the fire was started by an arson and that the firefighters acted negligently when putting out the fire.

“I would just like someone to explain to me how chainsawing a bunch of holes in a roof helps the fire not spread,” Manager of The Sub Kjerstin Ferris said. “I know I’m not a firefighter, but that makes no sense to me at all, and nobody’s able to explain why that would be a good thing to do.”

On the other hand, the San Luis Obispo Fire Department claims they did everything they could to put the fire out as quickly as possible. In addition, the fire department and insurance company that ran the investigation on the building have both declared that the fire was not arson related, but rather electrical.

Journalism senior Annie Vainshtein discussing reports of the fire with San Luis Obispo Fire Chief Garret Olson.
Journalism senior Annie Vainshtein discussing reports of the fire with San Luis Obispo Fire Chief Garret Olson.

How do you cover a story fairly when both of your main sources contradict one another?

My group and I realized how important it is to remain neutral when reporting on a story that is not only extremely controversial, but also a very sensitive topic for our sources.

“My main concern while reporting on this story was to be as accurate as possible without compromising deference to either party. A story about a fire is, fundamentally, a story about a loss, and I wanted to make sure that that was captured and animated, even alongside the very technical details.” – Annie

Overall, I think my group and I did a great job at remaining impartial through the process and solely reporting the facts.

I’m looking forward to hearing people’s reaction to our final product!

-Lauren Roberge