At the end of September, a missing person search for a university student became national news as thousands of people joined the quest to find 18-year-old Tom Jones. Worcester News editor Michael Purton explains how the newspaper became central to the story…
Late at night on Wednesday September 19, we were contacted by a number of people via Facebook who asked us to share a man’s appeal for help to find his son who had been missing in Worcester since around 4am that morning.
This was Ian Jones, the father of Tom, and we shared his Facebook post via our Worcester News page and website, and assumed we’d receive a message the following morning to tell us that the teenager had been found safe and well.
Worcester has a large student population at sixth form and university level and it’s not uncommon for teenagers to be reported missing and then found quickly. Indeed, while the search for Tom was taking place, a 16-year-old girl was reported missing by her family and then found a few hours later.
However, by Thursday morning Tom still hadn’t been found — more than 24 hours since his disappearance — and his friends and family were starting to panic. They gathered outside the Worcester News office in Hylton Road, which runs parallel to the River Severn, and began searching the area around the riverbank as police did the same.
Tom’s parents came into reception and I went down to speak to them. They told me that it was totally out of character for their son to vanish and not communicate with any of his family or friends. They wanted to see CCTV footage recorded by the camera on the front of our office in the hope that it showed Tom crossing the river on the footbridge, however the video was already with the police. They also asked that the Worcester News publicise the search for Tom as much as possible. We did just that.
Also on that Thursday, the FIND JONAH! Facebook page was created by Harley Hetherington, a close friend of Tom’s, to encourage the public to help the search. Thousands upon thousands of people joined the group and shared posts, while hundreds handed out posters.
This huge public response was one of the major factors in the national media deciding to cover the search for Tom. Of course, the arrest of two men on suspicion of murdering Tom, and their subsequent release, also played a part in attracting the national press, and there were reports of journalists from the tabloids and agencies turning up at the Jones’ family home.
At the Worcester News, we decided not to attempt to contact Tom’s parents unless they reached out to us, as we didn’t want to harass them. When I met them in reception, I told them that we wouldn’t contact them but that they could come to us whenever they wanted. Instead, we liaised closely with Harley to keep up to date with the search.
Tom’s parents did reach out to us, coming into our office on the Tuesday (September 25) to ask us to share their appeal for information again, and the Jones family and friends appreciated the way the Worcester News sensitively covered the search and sad discovery of Tom’s body — Harley told me that.
From the Friday (September 21) onwards, we covered the search for Tom with a live blog on our website every day until Sunday September 30, when hundreds of people held a riverside vigil to remember him following the discovery of his body on the Friday. Most of these live blogs had more than 100,000 views, which some receiving close to 500,000.
Different reporters ran the live blog each day, with guidance from newsdesk, and of course it had to be a Sunday when the story changed rapidly multiple times in the space of a few hours — from police releasing CCTV of two men they wanted to speak to in relation to the search for Tom, to them being arrested for murder, to them being released with no further action. The reporter on duty that day did a brilliant job to keep on top of the developments, but it was also a team effort as other staff dropped what they were doing to help.
Tom was on the front page of the newspaper in some form every day from Friday September 21 until Wednesday October 3 — the search, the arrests, the tragic news of his body being found and the subsequent tributes.
The beloved son, friend and student touched the hearts of everyone in Worcester — and with memorials planned, he will never be forgotten.