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Cell phones help us cover news faster and more easily

August 22, 2009|By JOEL HUFFER

OK, it's official. I've become that guy.

No, not the one who tries to sneak into the 10-items-or-less lane with a dozen items. Or the one who parks in the 15-minute parking space for 20 minutes.

No, I've become the poor sap in the grocery store aisle, cell phone in hand, asking his wife, "Did you say pretzel sticks or pretzel rods?"

I resisted as long as I could, but two months ago, I caved. Before going on a weekend camping trip with my sons, I agreed to buy a cell phone in case of an emergency.

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I went basic, choosing a phone on which I load prepaid minutes in amounts that I choose. I started with 60 minutes of airtime (and I still have 20 of them left).

Most of them were used that weekend when the boys wanted to call Mommy from the campsite. The others have been used one or two at a time, usually making or taking a quick call about picking up something on the way home.

As much as I hate to admit it, having the phone has come in handy. And even though I use it sparingly, I have learned how valuable it can be.

Of course, as an editor, I already should have known this.

There isn't a day that goes by in the newsroom that an editor isn't in contact with a reporter or photographer -- and sometimes both -- by cell phone.

Technology has changed the face of the newsroom in many ways, and we might have gained the most with the invention of cell phones. The way we were able to cover a recent breaking news event is a good example.

About 10:30 p.m. on a Thursday night, a call came across the newsroom police scanner for a helicopter crash in Washington County. The dispatcher said the incident was along Interstate 70 east of Hagerstown.

Our nighttime police reporter, Dave McMillion, and our photographer on duty, Kevin Gilbert, immediately headed out the door. They traveled east, awaiting a cell phone call from the office with details of the crash location.

A few minutes later, reporter Heather Keels -- who had left the newsroom about 15 minutes earlier and was driving to Frederick, Md. -- called from her cell phone to say she could see what appeared to be a car fire along the shoulder of I-70 and traffic was coming to a stop. She said she would call back in a few minutes with details.

After the dispatcher revealed the mile marker near where the crash occurred, a quick call to Dave on his cell phone alerted him and Kevin to the location of the crash on South Mountain, west of the U.S. 40 overpass.

Heather called back to tell us traffic was being turned around and rerouted west in the eastbound lanes of I-70. She said she had been told a section of the interstate was going to be closed for at least several hours. As it turns out, the flames Heather saw were from the helicopter crash.

By 11:15 p.m., Dave and Kevin reached the crash scene on foot. Kevin called from his cell phone to give editors a more detailed location and to inform them of what images he was able to capture from the crash.

About an hour later, after talking with police and fire officials, Dave called from his cell phone and dictated a detailed story of the crash. The press was stopped and the story was placed on the front page of the next day's Herald-Mail.

Without cell phones, which we didn't have in my days as a reporter, this story very likely would not have made it into Friday's paper.

Back then, a reporter basically had three choices to relay information to editors -- find a pay phone, which quite often weren't close to the accident or crime scene; convince a homeowner or an employee of a business to let you use their phone; or, in the most extreme cases, return to the office and write into the wee hours of the morning.

But now, thanks to cell phones, those efforts no longer are needed.

Reporters can get their stories to us faster, which means you can have your news when it's just that -- new.

Joel Huffer is managing editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2327, or by e-mail at joelh@herald-mail.com.

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