Reinventing the Newsroom

The Hourly Miracle

Posted in Cultural Change by reinventingthenewsroom on March 12, 2009

Newspapers, the saying goes, are a daily miracle — somehow, a team of reporters, editors, copy editors, photographers, graphic artists and production folks arrives in the morning, sorts through a blizzard of facts and events, rumors and motivations, histories and predictions, makes sense of it all, prioritizes it all and creates an illustrated novella that’s a guide to that newspaper’s world on that day. And then that team gets up and does it again the day after that. And the day after that. It’s an even more remarkable achievement for the fact that it’s routine.

Web papers can be an hourly miracle — but only when they’re done in a way that fulfills the medium’s promise. When papers are just shoveling print content onto a Web site you’ve got a nightly tragedy, not an hourly miracle. Then there are situations where editors spend their days cutting and pasting and Alt-Tabbing, serving as human bridges connecting systems that can’t talk to each other. That’s the Web as endurance test, and the only miracle is when people emerge only minimally bruised. Too many papers still hobble along doing business like this, hamstrung by technological limitations and cultural ills.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

One basic thing gets missed in a lot of discussions of print-Web divides and how to introduce print journalists to multimedia skills: Writing for the Web is a lot of fun. You get the speed of wire services, the experimentation of Web technology, and the instant feedback of readers. It’s an intoxicating mix.

When I started at the Wall Street Journal Online, I quickly became one of the chief rewrite guys, specializing in fast-moving stories that needed to be fleshed out with a lot of background. This meant more than just sticking an Associated Press top on stuff from the Journal archives — ideally, you’d go through the archives and build a nut graf out of new and old, giving busy readers that chunk of authoritative analysis that was a Journal hallmark.

My enthusiasm for “big weaves” paid off with an unofficial job as chief Web writer on Election Night. I’d come in around 4 p.m. after forcing myself to sleep as long as I could, and start by weaving together the Journal’s walk-up and the latest AP story — the classic “Americans went to the polls today” lead that’s the journalism equivalent of a roller coaster steadily ticking its way up that first incline. Once that first story was live, I’d get my list of poll closings together, put my Electoral College map front and center and try to gather all the intelligence I could — backgrounders from our bureaus, analysis from other papers, and anything else that I thought might be of value. Because there wouldn’t be time later.

Once the polls were ready to close in the first states we were off. From that point on, the story would almost never be idle — as soon as one revision pubbed, the next one would be on my screen. Revisions meant far more than updating the electoral-vote count: They demanded that you keep your eye on the overall analysis, note what the House and Senate meant for the parties’ overall prospects, find new bits of color, size up all the notes and tips and background material coming in from Journal reporters, keep an eye on the exit polls and internal polls, and remember what you could use in the story and what was background for shaping and signaling. You had to keep the whole story in your head, so a reader didn’t go from reading about a candidate’s night turning grim in the Midwest to his campaign’s cheerful afternoon get-out-the-vote drives in the East.

The most important thing was knowing how much of that work you could tackle with each revision. You didn’t want three revisions that offered nothing but changed numbers, but you also couldn’t get caught rewriting south of the first subhead when the networks called a brace of states. You needed to know without thinking about it when you had 90 seconds to change the headlines, summary and lead, update the electoral-vote count and republish, and when you could take 10 minutes to read the story over from end to end and reshape it.

You had to be really fast. You also had to be really careful — once things got going, you were hot-slotting, with no time for another editor to proof. And you had to be really fast and really careful over and over again — we’d easily go through 50 or more revisions on Election Night. At the same time, we never wanted the story to be a blob of information escaped from Inverted Pyramid Hell. I approached each and every revision as if it were the last one, as if any of them might be taken out of my hands and printed in the paper, with any mistakes i’d made preserved for posterity.

Reading that description over, it seems terrifying. But it wasn’t — my goodness it was fun. When I’d finally go home, I’d be simultaneously battered by exhaustion and too wired to imagine sleeping. (It didn’t help that neither the 2000 nor the 2004 presidential elections were settled that night.) And with each election the job got more complicated and more interesting as we got new tools, from real-time results and data feeds to dig into to reader forums and reporter blogs.

Not every Web story was a presidential election, of course — and thank goodness, or I’d probably look like an octogenarian. But every big, evolving Web story felt something like that: You’d take a deep breath and get ready to own that story for as long as it took, keeping a close eye on what you knew, what it meant, how that would change with each new revision, and how best to use whatever storytelling tools you were given.

In situations like that a Web newspaper really is an hourly miracle. And it’s enormous fun getting to feel like a miracle worker.

Tomorrow: But isn’t there another way of doing this? There certainly is….

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