Every day, reporters race against time

November 09, 2003|by JOHN LEAGUE

Newspaper writing has always fascinated me, as have the work habits of reporters.

I've worked with reporters who could bang out a 15-inch story - about three typewritten, double-spaced pages - in 15 minutes, with nary a typo, misspelling or factual error.

I've also worked with reporters who would labor over their story for hours on end, filing only when the deadline and an editor loomed (or threatened, sometimes with violence).

There is no right or wrong way. It was unique to the individual, and the demands of that story, that workday and the always-looming deadline.


Back in my reporting days, I fell somewhere in the middle, as did most of us. I was neither the fastest nor the slowest writer. Fortunately, I could put the pedal to the metal when necessary.

In a pinch, I could write a story in 20 minutes. But I'm such a poor typist, it would take me another 20 to 30 minutes to make the necessary corrections. That, or a patient, detail-driven editor to do it for me, which, fortunately, I had.

Years ago, I covered the school board. Tuesday night meetings began around 7, and often were still in session when I'd run back to the office to write my stories for the evening.

I'd leave the meeting around 10:30 p.m. The city editor often saved me the entire two columns on the right hand side of Page 3 to fill.

We'd discuss what stories I was to file, because there were always more stories than space. Then I'd begin writing and do so till 1 a.m., pushing our 1:15 production deadline about as hard as you can.

Computer technology made it all possible, as did planning.

In the afternoon, the city editor and I would review the meeting agenda and discuss the stories I was likely to file. He may not know exactly what was to happen, but he had a good idea. And we planned accordingly.

Our actual deadline in those days was 11 p.m. But since the editor trusted me, he knew I could fill the space. When need arose, you could edit, process and complete the page in 15 minutes, as long as the story was relatively well-written and the computer and production equipment were humming.

As a reporter, it was an exhilarating feeling to see those two open columns of news hole at 11 p.m., and see them filled with your byline less than two hours later, when the first paper rolled off the press. Among the many things in the newsroom I loved and miss, that's got to rank near the top.

We also had reporters who would cover meetings from mid-morning till late afternoon. Several would struggle with two stories for five hours or more, searching for just the perfect word, the perfect wording or the perfect explanation.

Some of my former colleagues never filed a story they were satisfied with. Some would not have filed a story at all had an editor not demanded it. If they had two hours till deadline, they needed two. If they had four hours, they needed four.

It was often agonizing to watch. As someone who became a city editor, the daily routine tested your patience and frequently your editing skills.

I don't know what the writing peaks, valleys, ebbs and flows of our newsroom are today.

But I bet there are a few reporters who can complete an accurate story in 15 minutes. There are still a few who take all the time allowed, and then some. And, fortunately, the majority who fall somewhere in between.

Somehow, every day in thousands of newsrooms across the country, all of the parts come together to fashion a newspaper.

Many days, it's nothing short of amazing.

John League is editor and publisher of The Herald Mail. He can be contacted at 301-733-5131, ext. 7073, or by e-mail at

The Herald-Mail Articles