Thursday, December 13, 2007

Putting the dead in deadlines

One of the great myths of newspaper journalism is how technology would speed up or improve the production of the newspaper.
As one who spanned several generations of new technology: Hot type, IBM Selectric (the worst type setting system every invented), crude computer word processors, ATEX and later Macs, the one that provided the greatest flexibility for updating and providing the freshest news in the newspaper was, ta-da, hot type.
Yes, the older technology allowed afternoon newspapers (the ones I'm familiar with) to update news and freshen its pages up to nearly noon (before I came around that deadline even extended into the early afternoon).
Now the dirty little secret is that after 8:30 a.m. at most afternoon papers there is little or no updating and for morning papers, the news is 8-10 hours old by the time it gets to your doorstep. Most of the news in your afternoon newspaper is from the previous day or the day before. If you don't believe me go to your newspaper's website and see what stories in the newspaper you received at home that day were on the paper's website early the day before. Sometimes the day before that.
Newsrooms now plan for Sunday front pages, weeks in advance. Long, boring features with beautiful stunning pictures now replace what in earlier days would be the breaking news of a Friday night or Saturday or a focused rehash of the major story of the week before.
But those long, boring features allow editors to layout the newspaper (editors love pretty pages) days in advance and then they pray that nothing major will happen that will make them cut a hole in their front page artwork to squeeze in a real news story for Sunday.
Often you will find major fires, fatalities or murders stuck in a page 2 hole or inside so as not to break up a potentially award-winning layout for an editor.
Newspapers would win back readers, especially to weekend papers if they would actually treat Saturday and Sunday like a regular news day.
The daily I worked for used to staff a regular reporter on Saturday and Sunday. The weekend shift was part of their regular responsibilities. They developed news sources and provided actual news for Sunday and Monday editions.
In later years, staff members were assigned to work on Saturday on a rotating basis, which didn't allow for the development of sources and the Sunday shift was sometimes used to punish a reporter that an editor wasn't particularly happy with.
More later on how editors rotate beats.

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