By Stan Bush
THORNTON, Colo. (CBS4) – We were finished.
For 13 weeks photojournalist Mark Neitro and I had been working on a special report following the discovery of a triceratops in Thornton. We shot more than 26 hours of footage with paleontologists on the dig site. We had hours of extensive interviews with scientists and city leaders about the discovery. Multiple cameras. Accessed forbidden corridors in the museum. We even closed off part of the museum main exhibit to use a crane to shoot footage.
For weeks, I drove around the city listening to stock music instead of the radio to pick a “score” for our project. I slept with triceratops on the brain. Writing script and storyboarding exchanges in my dreams.
Minutes before we started writing the show the Denver Museum of Nature & Science sent an email to their members, thousands of them, making the highlight of their end of year calendar this note:
“Watch CBS4 December 8th at 6:30pm for The Thornton Triceratops.”
Followed by an RSVP for 500 people: “Please confirm your reservation to a VIP screening of The Thornton Triceratops in IMAX at the Phipps Auditorium”
Our News Director, Tim Wieland, sent a note to Mark, our producer Raetta Holdman, and me as I stared into a blank word document:
“The pressure is on.”
Transcribing interviews took hours. Writing was longer. Mark and I then worked in a windowless edit bay for 3 days where we scoured over video, bickered over creative differences, and celebrated over victories together when we finally got to the final cut.
It was mid-November and in the TV business at that time you’re lucky to even get 5 minutes with a news director. So, when Tim sat in our dark TV dungeon ready to approve or disembowel our 30-minute odyssey I was so tight with anxiety I could only manage to stared straight ahead like as if my eye contact alone would burn a hole though the screen.
Silence, and it felt like a lot of silence, turned to “whoa” and “wow”, laughs, and “cool” and “that’s awesome.”
“I wish it was longer,” he said. (Seriously, he actually said that. I have witnesses! I will swear by that to my grave.)
To borrow a line from a favorite movie, “relief washed over me in an awesome wave.”
The ghost pains from Mark’s high five are real.
That was the good part.
Not an hour later I got a phone call from Maura O’Neal, our contact at the museum.
“So we have a little news about the triceratops,” she said. “The thing is … it’s not a triceratops.”
I can’t quote you how I responded. I can assure you it was not good. This is a family website and that type of profanity is frowned upon. Bottom line – we were not finished anymore.
Once I was able to pull my soul back into my body, Maura explained that while preparators at the museum removed soil from the shield that makes up triceratops’ iconic skull they uncovered a large oval-shaped window where they expected to find bone. Dr. Joe Sertich, the Curator of Dinosaurs at the museum and the lead on the excavation, determined what they had found was not triceratops, but a distant cousin called torosaurus.
This, as you can imagine, lead to a panic in the newsroom. We invested a lot into The Thornton Triceratops project and when the news hit Mark and Tim they had similar out-of-body experiences. Raetta handled the news beautifully – whether or not a glass of wine and onion rings helped that response remains a mystery. (Clarity – Raetta heard this news well after 9pm, when a glass of wine is no longer taboo. I needed one in that moment. More than one. Maybe I still do.) *READ HER NOTE BELOW*
Suddenly, our prehistoric version of War & Peace was up for massive revisions with just 10 days before its premier. Remember, before this news we had more than a month to plot the story out and a full schedule of regular news coverage that we still had to fulfill.
But our project called with the new torosaurus twist and Dr. Sertich explained why they were skeptical about the find at the dig site and what led to the confusion.
“If you were only to find the face, the brow horns forward, you would call it a triceratops every time,” said Dr. Sertich.
This put the discovery into an entirely new orbit. It was already deemed the largest cretaceous find in state history, which is a big deal, but there have already been thousands of triceratops fossils found around the globe. Of torosaurus, only about 7 or 8 are known and none of them in North America are even close to being as complete as what was uncovered in Thornton.
“This is the first definitive torosaurus from Colorado. This is one of only a handful ever known and the most complete known,” he said.
When it comes to science, you makes a hypothesis, test it and when new evidence comes along – change the theory. It’s why scientists are hesitant to commit to any idea until they’ve spent ample time, sometimes years, working on what they believe.
Typically, that’s not how the daily news business works, but we got to experience science in a real, visceral and emotional way. I hope viewers get that experience too when they watch our special airing at 6:30 p.m. on Dec 8.
One final thought here:
During our interviews, the museum’s CEO George Sparks spoke about how important discoveries like this are to the future of science.
“I don’t know where you grew up, but where I grew up if we were to find something like this in the neighborhood it would be a really big deal. It would color our outlook on science, how we view the natural world around us, ‘gosh aren’t we lucky to be part of this?’ it would have been an astonishing thing in my childhood if something like that would have happened and the kids there all felt the same way in the neighborhood,” Sparks said.
Kids lined up on the fence line at the construction site where the fossils were found. They were digging in their own backyards for dinosaurs. Excitement for the natural world felt like an electric current in the air. Maybe those kids are the next generation of scientists that make a great discovery and change the way we view history and the future.
It also reminded me of my own childhood.
I was 11 years-old when KCNC-TV presented a similar half hour special, this one on Klondike and Snow, two polar bears cubs at the Denver Zoo. They faced life-threatening conditions from the moment they were born. Producer Vikki Hildner, anchor Bill Stuart and photojournalist Bill Masure (who still works here) documented the cubs’ remarkable triumph of survival.
My grandfather bought my brother and me a VHS of the documentary in the checkout line of King Soopers. We almost watched it enough to snap the tape inside.
I can still hear the deep timber of Bill’s voice. I found it again on YouTube and all the feels came back. His opening line captured the drama instantly.
“Polar bears… they grow to more than 1000lbs of aggressive power. Klondike and Snow.. at birth each weighed one pound. One helpless pound….”
That special was one of my first engines to ignite, launching me into a career in broadcasting.
In fact, 20 years after that special, Masure and I covered a study on black bears in Durango. We crawled into dens, ended up covered in stuff that was definitely not mud, and held newborn cubs in the wild. Talk about full circle.
For me, The Thornton Triceratops has been a perfect blend of two things I love – The Denver Museum of Nature & Science, a source of unending inspiration and some of my fondest childhood memories, and the storytelling power of KCNC, a place I’ve always considered a pillar of the state’s identity.
I wonder, I hope, that while kids marvel at the dinosaur discovery in Thornton inspiration burns in them like a wildfire. I hope they may be inspired in every sense imaginable and drive them to achieve great things; whether that is in paleontology, journalism or wherever else their heart may lead them.
I just wanted to add a few notes to Stan’s journey:
1st – Not only did I not freak out when I heard the news about the triceratops being a torosaurus, I was excited (actually I laughed out loud.) It wasn’t just the wine, producers handle change about 100 times a day. We are always thinking ahead and all I could think was “This is really cool, now we have a mystery to unravel.” Which brings me to
2nd – This is really Stan and Mark’s journey and vision. I came to it late, well after the original shoots were done. Stan has captured the essence of it but maybe not the intensity. I just want you to know how hard they worked for weeks. And also kudos to the CBS4 newsroom for making time and space to allow them to create something so special. When you pull a reporter & photographer out of the daily news grind for as long as we did with these two, it takes everyone else to pick up the pace to fill the gap.
Just a few more reasons CBS4 – KCNC (Colorado’s News Channel) is such a great place to work and has been for almost three decades.