My Register Experience

Deadline Every Login: What has and hasn’t changed in newsrooms

Posted in Preparation Week by Michael Bugeja on November 5, 2009

teletype

A famous statesman asked, ‘When is your–what do you newspapermen call it? Your deadline.’ The reporter sighed. ‘I’m from the United Press,’ he replied. ‘Our deadline is now. Someplace around the world at this instant a newspaper is going to press. We’ve got a deadline every minute.’


When I worked at United Press International in the 1970s, we’d often remark how we wished we had the schedule of the typical newspaper reporter who had time to develop stories as well as relationships with his sources.

Our motto, borrowed from International News Service, which merged with United Press in 1958, was, “Get it first, but get it right.”

Our mantra then is chanted now in the typical digital newsroom.

Indeed, many working reporters and editors responding to this blog noted the quicker pace as being the biggest change in today’s newsroom since Dennis Chamberlin and I worked in one decades ago.

There’s even a texting-like rule to symbolize that pace–4/5, 24/7–or four paragraphs online within five minutes of knowing something, around the clock.

Typewriter_CosmicIn the wire service, we called this “A Deadline Every Minute,” the title of the 1957 book by Unipresser Joe Alex Morris who, like Chamberlin, worked at the Denver Post before joining the wire service in 1928.

A colleague of Walter Chronkite, Morris was foreign editor during World War II for United Press.

The quicker pace hardly will be new for me as a former UPI bureau chief (or as director of a bustling school of journalism and communication).

In preparing for our Register experience, I emailed several working reporters and editors, asking what Chamberlin and I should anticipate after our long absence from daily journalism.

The replies were illuminating.

Chuck Raasch, national correspondent and columnist for Gannett, noted that news is “‘content,’ there are no deadlines, and you will be amazed at the amount of work heaped on a much smaller workforce.

“Once, you revved up all day until you hit deadline somewhere mid- to late-evening, and then rolled through various edition deadlines through the rest of the night,” Raasch observed. “Now, with Internet Web sites, the pressure is always on to publish and post.”

What hasn’t changed are the people and personalities. “I still believe journalism is a calling and that certain people are cut out for this business. Energetic, creative, curious people, who believe in the essential function of an independent media in civil society.

“I see an awful lot of me at 25 in the young women and men who talk to me about going into the business.”

I knew Raasch when he was 20, writing and editing for The Collegian, our alma mater’s student newspaper at South Dakota State University.

Mike Tobin, assistant metro editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and a former student of mine, has that same passion.

“I started working in newsrooms in 1996 at States News Service and here at the Plain Dealer in 1999,” Tobin stated. “Far and away the biggest change has been the online component (Cleveland.com for us) and the constant push to get everything online.

“When I started as a police reporter, you’d find out about a murder from the homicide unit, pull the dead guy and suspect’s records, assuming there was one, go out and talk to relatives, go back and talk to detectives, grab a sandwich and think about it some and hash out how you were going to write this story, what your lede would be, what the appropriate length was, etc.

“This is the way it was done until about three years ago.”

This is the way that Watergate-era reporters did it, too.

“Now,” Tombin states, “the way you do it is put up a post immediately after finding out about what happened (the 4/5 rule). Then, for every step I detailed above, the reporter is either updating the post with info or calling their editors to do the same.

“So the story is very much a work in progress.”

This is precisely what we did and still do in the wire service.

It is also why we made horrendous goofs, the most infamous being Scripps Howard namesake Roy Howard filing this unfortunate flash on Nov. 7, 1918:

The war is over. Germany and the Allies signed an armistice at 11 a.m. today, hostilities ceasing three hours later.

Problem was, the armistice officially ended five days later. But Howard got it first.

Unlike the Web, where errors can be fixed in a snap, celebrations in 1918 continued in the false light of a erroneous flash.

Tobin notes the same type of mistakes happen on the Internet, such as the erroneous online reporting by several news agencies in 2008 that U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones was dead before she was. “That would not have happened in the old system.”

Computer-assisted reporting is necessary in the environment of “deadline every login.”

“Any story about anyone now includes googling them and often checking their facebook page,” Tobin says. “The good part is that it often makes information more easily available. You can find their friends online instead of banging on doors.

“The downside? We have many many many reporters reluctant to leave the newsroom, who far too rarely explore the city and bang on doors and talk to actual real live human beings (which to me was always the best part of the job.)

“To many reporters, sending emails is their version of shoe-leather journalism.”

Allen Breed, national writer for The Associated Press, also believes the biggest change has been the ability to access documents without ever leaving your desk.

Fax“When I started,” he recalls, “the fax was a new tool, and still employed that awkward thermal paper. Now I can go into PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) and pull up entire case files that before required a trip to a faraway district court clerk’s office. The bad thing about this is that it’s easy to become spoiled and to look for ways not to leave the office.”

“What hasn’t changed are the fundamentals of the job,” Breed emphasized. “You still have to run down leads and check facts, whether you do that by phone, through a chat room or in person.”

Breed added that you still have to track down people whose stories “will suck readers in. And you still have to GO there. You can let people describe their surroundings for you all day, but if you’re not there in person, you’re not using your reporter’s eye to determine what details SHOULD be going into a story.

“And while there’s a place for cell phone photos from breaking news events, you still can’t beat a professionally shot picture that’s in focus, beautifully composed and perfectly exposed.”

Like these from Pulitzer Prize winner Dennis Chamberlin.

Joe Mahr, one of my former students and another Pulitzer Prize winner, is an investigative reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He predicted “a lot of people will talk about the production end of it” as the biggest change. For Mahr, the change has been in fact gathering.

“I joined the industry in 1994, so that’s my vantage point. Back then, CAR (computer-assisted reporting) was in its infancy. The Internet was barely in newsrooms, and maybe just a terminal stuck somewhere in the middle of the room.

“So the techniques back in the mid-90s, I assume, were largely the same from the past 30 years–call or visit people, and get paper records,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Now, Google has become the newsroom librarian.”

What hasn’t changed between then and now? “Editors still want stories soon. Reporters still want to take longer. Government still ties to stonewall reporters. Good people still help reporters find stuff. Good stories still win out, even if they’re packaged differently.

James Hill, managing editor of the Washington Post Writer’s Group, echoed that sentiment. Accuracy is emphasized now more than ever.

“If anything, reporters and editors are now under a constant microscope, where one error, if big enough, can produce a professional embarrassment of epic proportions. But the need to expend shoeleather to get a story, to get it right, to get it edited, and to get it before the eyes of readers is the same as it always has been, Thank God.”

The transparency of Internet also has resulted in more professionalism, Hill believes.

The sheer number of digital tools, from blogs to video, has allowed editors to place reporters in slots that amplify their strengths. Writers use Web 2.0 effectively. Creative layout editors are now creative page designers.

Downside? “No printers to shmooze — or argue — with.”

Several national reporters working for bigname outlets asked for anonymity in answering what has and has not changed in the digital newsroom since the Watergate era.

One reporter for a nationally known metro lamented that too many veteran reporters resist learning the new technology and too many newbies “don’t embrace old-fashioned reporting – checking in on people, chats, your basic shoe-leather.”

A 35-year veteran reporting for a worldwide news outlet noted, “News decisions are no longer being driven by any sort of thoughtful, deliberative process, but by television, and to a lesser extent, the Internet. And they in their turn are being driven by what they have film of, or what they can get hits for.

“This means that more resources are going to chase blip-on-the-radar news, celebrity news and entertaining television ‘news’ like dramatic but esentially so-what car chases.”

What hasn’t changed between then and now?

“Journalists want to do a good job,” she said, “and are way underpaid.”

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