Excitement of hard news is a real rush…

November 21, 2008

(Copyright 2008)

The WALTHER REPORT

By Tony Walther

The late-breaking Associated Press news story’s lead ends with the clause: …where his condition was not immediately. “Known” is the word that should have ended the sentence.

At least when I make a blunder only a handful of folks usually read it, but I saw this incomplete AP sentence on several sites on the world-wide web.

The subject was Attorney General Michael Mukasey, 67. He collapsed Thursday night while making a speech in Washington D.C. and was taken to a hospital. (As of 9:30 p.m. Pacific Time he was reported to be alive and alert.)

But he’s not a relative and I’m a hard-nosed former journalist who is just using the immediate reporting of his misfortune as a lead into my blog.

During my so-called career as a journalist – something I did before truck driving – I don’t recall covering any news stories of such major significance as the condition on the Attorney General of the United States, but I do know what late-breaking news story pressure is, when you barely have time to type it out, let alone see if you’ve written grammatically correct and complete sentences. You hope that there will be some check along the way. In my case, I often had to worry not only if I made a grievous error, but whether my editor (s) would make it worse.

On the other hand there is something about pressure that makes one think clearly (or go completely to pieces). In fact, the best hard news stories are written in a free-flowing stream of consciousness fashion. They are written with the excitement that is news, the excitement that is the reason a real journalist gets into journalism in the first place.

My favorite hard news story that I ever did was when part of a rural school burned down in the 1980s in Tulare County, Ca. It was the school I mentioned in my recent blog where a man who was both a local farmer and school board member did the school’s drinking fountain repair work.

The newspaper I was working on published every day except Sunday. It was back when there were still a lot of afternoon papers, of which it was one. I think our morning copy deadline was 10:30 a.m.

As I recall, one Monday I showed up for work about 7 a.m. I had no idea there had been a fire at the outlying school. The reporter who usually covered things to do with fire and police agencies had been covering something in another nearby town over the weekend, as I recall, and was on his way back when he noticed the fire trucks. But he felt that he was off duty and it wasn’t right in town, so he just continued on home.

When I got to work my boss was already mad at that reporter. But he turned to me and told me to go out and get a story and photos about a school fire, being that schools were on my beat.

So I drove several miles out of town to the school, where indeed several classrooms, not the whole school, had been gutted. As quickly as possible, checking my watch as I went, I interviewed the principal, some teachers, and even some pupils, made some photographs and rushed back to town to the newspaper office, handed my film to the darkroom guy (which was me on every other Saturday) and proceeded to bang out my story. That day on the front page was a photo of the principal standing in a gutted classroom amid the fire-charred desks, reduced to their metal frames, plus my full by-lined story of what happened, the result, the reaction, and what the plans for the future were. I had to write that story in a hurry, but my mind was a lot clearer than if I did not have to have it done until the next day.

I was on a roll. That evening, or maybe a day or so later, I don’t recall for sure, when I was officially off duty, on a whim I drove back out to the school and found a school board member surveying some of the damage. I got a good interview with him, to include the lead they had on the culprit and what the board’s immediate plans were for rebuilding.

In the scheme of things, maybe a small story or a big story in a small town. But once I was a journalist, and I actually did leg work and thrived on the addictive drug that is the deadline.