Deadlines, for me, are usually 9:30 a.m. Any later and editors are asking for measurements and time estimates and copy editors are looking tense and everyone’s tempers seem a little higher.
I like to file by 9, when I can.
But some days you can do everything right and you’re still scrambling to pull everything together after the page should have been sent down. It doesn’t help when the news is changing as fast as you can write it.
Today was one of those days.
7:30 a.m.: An editor hands me a release from the local branch of the state Department of Transportation that says one of our major highways has been shutdown after an accident. We’re pretty sure that means a fatal accident, since we can tell from the 911 dispatch log that firefighters were sent out at 5:15 a.m. That’s a long time for the road to be closed, except for a fatal or overturned coal truck.
A call to the coroner’s office confirms that the coroner is somewhere, responding to some call. We put 2 and 2 together and save space on the front page.
I’m on police today so I let it sit, type the other small crimes and theft reports and wait for the coroner to get back to the office.
7:45 a.m.: State police fax over a report, confirming the accident and the fatality. I have more questions but this takes the pressure off; at least I have something to go on. It’s also unexpected. They’re not always so prompt.
9 a.m.: No report from the coroner yet, and I’ve given him about as long as I can. I try his cellphone, and he answers on the second ring. So far this has been easy. He won’t have a report out for a while but he walks me through the accident, details such as location and place of death.
But he also tells me they’re looking for a second person. Apparently there was another person who was supposed to be in the truck, but he or she was unaccounted for this morning. Maybe the person never got in the truck; or maybe there’s an injured or dead person laying somewhere in the tall weeds by the side of the road.
Minutes later I talk to the state police spokesman, who tells the same story: searching for this possible second victim by helicopter.
That’s my lede.
9:30 a.m.: The story is filed, with plenty of time despite the unexpected second-person twist. But I’m nervous. We’re running a story that says “police search for a possible second person at the scene of a fatal accident” but there are a couple hours still before anyone picks up a paper — what if that person overslept today? What if they find out he or she was never in the truck, not part of the situation at all? I write a back-up lede, just in case.
9:50 a.m.: I call both the state police spokesman and the coroner for one last check. Neither have any updates. The paginator has the front page done, out for reads by copy editors. Whatever changes after the press run will be dealt with tomorrow.
10 a.m.: The state police spokesman calls me back. They’ve left the scene, did not find a second person — and that person in question sent the deceased man a message more than an hour after the accident. They’re not looking anymore. We pull the story from the page and I add the new details to my back-up version. But my phone’s ringing again. The coroner changed his mind about an autopsy, just in case this other person was involved somehow, in case someone ends up with criminal charges. Better to have the formal autopsy on file.
Of course these second person thoughts are vague and no one really knows what’s going on by the sound of it, not yet anyway and so I add in just the simple details: a search for a second person who was not found, a message sent post-accident, search ended.
And now we really are out of time and the page is gone and I’m dancing in my seat I’ve got to pee so bad and why, I wonder, does the news suddenly have to become so fluid right at deadline?