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News generally slows at holidays, but in my time on beat, there was one notable exception

December 24, 2006|by JOHN LEAGUE

Holidays are an interesting time for those of us in the news business. Back when I was a reporter, that was particularly true around Christmastime.

The Herald-Mail remains one of the few newspapers that doesn't publish an edition on Christmas Day, our only nonpublishing day of the year. (Since the news doesn't stop, there are folks at The Herald-Mail who believe we should publish a paper 365 days a year, but that's another column for another time.)

This year, Christmas falls on a Monday. So our news, production and circulation teams will work Saturday night-Sunday morning to assemble, publish and distribute the Dec. 24 edition. They'll be off from early Christmas Eve until around noon on Christmas Day. That's when reporters on The Morning Herald staff will begin work, followed by editors in mid- to late-afternoon.

If memory serves, I pulled the Christmas Day shift six of the first eight years I was a reporter and editor at the newspaper. Most of those years, I volunteered for the duty because I was single and was angling (successfully) to be off on New Year's so I could party with my friends. Other years, I just drew the short straw.

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It's not a lot of fun leaving a Christmas dinner with family on Christmas Day and heading out to work, even when you're volunteering to do it. But like distance running, once you force yourself out the door, it's just fine.

When I was a reporter working in Charles Town, W.Va. - my first job at The Herald-Mail - I had a daily routine. I'd drop by the State Police barracks, Magistrate Court, the Courthouse and the Sheriff's Department as part of my rounds, though some of the most valuable gossip emanated from the old News Stand in Charles Town. I'd check police and court records, and just talk with people to see what was going on.

Police departments can be a tough sell, and it takes time to build a relationship of trust with some officers. Nothing helped me cement some of those relationships more than did working on holidays, particularly Christmas.

I don't know if it was shared suffering, or if making my rounds on Christmas Day showed that I was serious about my job, but my relationship with the police changed the first time I walked through the door on Christmas Day.

I could feel the level of trust among those sources increase simply because I was working on a day when most other people weren't, as were they. We all had jobs to do, and it didn't matter if it was March 23 or Dec. 25.

I also had one very strange and unforgettable Christmas Eve that didn't involve Santa Claus.

During the holidays, reporters try to fill their notebooks with feature stories that can run whenever they're needed between Christmas and New Year's. Most governments don't meet during that period, many businesses are closed and many newsmakers and sources are on vacation. Feature stories are the backbone of the holiday papers.

My routine was to gather the information for two feature stories the week before Christmas, then write them on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, I would begin making my police rounds at 4 p.m., then write whatever stories they produced. I'd usually do one final round of calls to the police about 10 p.m. It was always quiet, and Christmas Day was more about being on call than being busy.

There was one big exception.

That year - I think it was 1980 - it was one story after another. (Must have been a full moon!)

The morning of Christmas Eve, I got a tip that an inmate had hanged himself at the Jefferson County Jail. He had, and I spent the morning and afternoon gathering information for that story.

But that was only the beginning.

Shortly after sundown, I heard about a shooting in a remote area of Jefferson County near the Loudoun County, Va., line. Turned out a family holiday dinner had taken a turn for the worse, and two angry factions of the family went outside and re-created their own Christmas Eve version of the Hatfields and McCoys. Several people were injured during an exchange of gunfire.

About an hour later, there was another shooting, again at a family get-together.

In both cases, the shootings were fueled by heavy alcohol consumption. Fortunately, no one was killed in either incident, but it kept the police, emergency room personnel and one reporter busy on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day trying to put all of the pieces together.

News doesn't take a break just because there's a holiday, and neither does crime or illness. That's something to ponder as we sit in our living rooms at the end of a long Christmas afternoon.

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

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