Monday, May 02, 2011

Not like the old days

Ever wonder what a newspaper office is like when a really big story breaks?

It's actually pretty quiet.

I worked in the office Sunday night, and I felt pretty old when I described what would happen when something big would happen when I worked in radio.

First off, bells went off. The teletype machines would print out stories on actual paper. When a big enough story took place, we heard five or 10 bells. Sometimes we knew when a story was coming and sometimes we didn't, but we always looked to make sure what was going on ... and then turned off the alarm.

I still remember the day the Pope was shot. As you could imagine, there was lots of activity in the WEBR building that day. We had the Associated Press Radio feed on the air, which was piped all over the building, and suddenly the announcer said that a woman who had been wounded in the assassination attempt was from ... Buffalo. Our news director at the time, a man not known for his speed, moments later sprinted to the newsroom from his office. If he had run that fast in softball games, we would have won some more games.

Here in 2011, it's different. The wires are on computer feeds, so there are no bells. We saw a note shortly after 10 that President Obama was going to make a major speech shortly after 10:30 p.m., but we didn't have any idea what it was at the time. But CNN was hinting that this was going to be big, big news. There was discussion around the office, but it really only affected a few of us (none in sports, naturally).

At some point the decision was made to cancel the Niagara edition, which goes off at 10:45 p.m. We didn't think it was a good idea to sell a paper without the big news of the day in it if we could help it. By 11, the word had come that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. The speech came later in the hour.

Since the story comes from the Associated Press, it was just a matter of reworking the layout. While there are some journalism decisions to make in such cases, the actual reworking is a matter of moving shapes around a computer screen. You'd be surprised at how fast we can get that ready, and how the heart does race a little bit in such circumstances.

By the way, when CNN was speculating about 10:20, it said it was a national security story but had nothing to do with Libya. What, we wondered, would be worth a late Sunday night speech by the President. I said, "Catching Bin Laden would qualify." Lucky guess.

Let's hope Bin Laden was severely disappointed when he reached the after-life.

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