With five minutes to deadline, if an air crash is still unconfirmed, or a police officer MAY have been shot, or theres a rumor of a major indictment, it is simply too soon to tell the story, no matter how afraid you are that your competition will tell it first.
|5 Minutes To Deadline...Now What?!
When You Have To Write The Story Really, REALLY Fast
Weve all been through this, many times. Youve written your stories for the day. Theyre beautiful. Works of art! Youre proud. And youre tired. Nothing left to do but sit back, watch the broadcast, and keep an eye on the wires, just in case. Perhaps youre already thinking about the drive home, dinner, the movie you want to catch on HBO, that phone call you have to make, or...
Computer message from the producer, already in the control room: Hey, can you do :30 on the fire? I want to go with it at the top of the show. Thanks!
You look for information. The wires have nothing. You try to ask the assignment desk. Everyones on the phone. You search for video. Not in yet. You message the producer, looking for guidance. She sends you back to the desk. Now you have four minutes. Somebody wake me up from this bad dream, please!
Even the best writers can have trouble when theres no time to think, barely enough information to report, let alone boil down, and a waiting, impatient producer. Thats why its so important to remember that even in a crunch, the rules still apply.
Be sure youve got it right.
It should go without saying that a story must be accurate, whether we have five minutes or five hours to write it. But Its amazing how often breaking news gets on the air, and then, moments later, turns out to be substantially wrong, if not completely false. It happens because writers and producers forget the rules. Put it on NOW replaces Do it right (like the famous assignment editor from New York, who, on an average of once a day would get on the PA system with a breaking story: LISTEN UP!! hed bellow. Weve got a DC-10 down in the water at the airport!!.... Stand by! Pandemonium in the newsroom. About a minute later, LISTEN UP!! The story is changing... it was some mook flying a kite at Jones Beach. Nobody hurt...)
With five minutes to deadline, if an air crash is still unconfirmed, or a police officer MAY have been shot, or theres a rumor of a major indictment, it is simply too soon to tell the story, no matter how afraid you are that your competition will tell it first. Producers need to show some responsible restraint, and writers need to have the courage to say, Whoa! I dont have enough yet to tell this story!
But what if the information is reliable, only scarce (or sketchy, as we love to say)? Or what if theres plenty of material, and the only limitation is the clock? Different challenges, but the rules still hold.
With only a fact or two, and no time to get more, its pretty simple. All you can do is tell what you know. Period. It may not make for a very long story, or a well-written one, but so what? More will come. Say so. We have very little on this story right now, were working on getting more information, but heres what we know right now... Getting that down-and-dirty story out of the way buys you a little time to start working on an update, with more and better information. In that sense, a breaking story with limited facts is much like a tease. Besides telling what we know, it needs to reassure viewers that the full story is coming. And then you have to deliver on that reassurance.
The hardest challenge comes when a story breaks and you have tons of material right away, which can happen, for example, if someone famous dies, and the pre-written obituary moves almost immediately. Or a verdict is reached in a long, well-covered trial. Or any ongoing story reaches some kind of climax or conclusion. Theres plenty to work with. Just no time. Suddenly, all the editing and stylistic decisions youd normally make at a reasonable pace - what to leave in? what to leave out? - now have to be done in seconds. This is where your ability to write conversationally will save you, because this, more than any other time, is the ultimate moment for conversational copy.
Just tell the story, as though you were speaking to a friend.
With moments to deadline, theres no time to fret over a catchy turn-of-phrase, no time to polish every last word, no time to look for ways to sell the story. The promo people, the graphics folks, the managers, the hype-meisters, theyll all have at the story soon enough. The newswriters job is to be the first guy who runs into the house after witnessing the explosion, and, gasping, tells his friends, Wow! You wont believe what I just saw!! Straight, simple, clear, unembellished. A hijacker is holding 100 airline passengers hostage (save Terror on the Tarmac for tomorrow). A man with a gun is barricaded inside a home and firing at police. The verdict in that big trial is in. The Dow is down 500 points (let someone else wax anthropomorphic on the Wall St. Jitters.)
Dont try to do everything yourself.
Newswriters are part of the process, but not the entire process. The day I finally understood that was the day I became a better newsman, and probably saved my health, too. Now, when a story breaks, I dont leap in six different directions, trying to handle everything myself and feeling guilty if I cant. I do my best, and I count on others to work just as hard. If I need info from the desk and everyones on the phone, I gently, but firmly interrupt someone, and make it clear: The producer is going with the story NOW. What have you got? Could you get some more, please? Translation: Its not just my neck out there. You guys have to help me, or it wont happen.
If there are multiple tasks to be done quickly, like writing the copy and processing the video, which may be coming in at the same time, I dont hesitate to yell for help (and I do mean yell. Folks who think of me as soft-spoken are a little shocked when they hear it). Ordinarily I prefer to handle the video for every story I write, but in a last-minute situation, the tag-team approach works better, so I grab the nearest fellow writer... Ill write, you cut!. Its simple common sense. Besides, Id rather share the credit than take all the blame.
John Chancellor once said the news business operates backwards, compared to other jobs. Unlike most folks who start their workday with an energy spurt, and gradually wind down until quitting time, the most important part of our day comes at the very end, the final hour, when the show is on the air, and were all tired. Chancellor was talking about having to look fresh and rested on camera, after 8 or more long hours in the newsroom. Writers deal with it too. That breaking story during the broadcast will come when were most fatigued, and most vulnerable to mistakes. But if we remember the rules, remember our training and remember were part of a team, well get the job done right. And THEN we can go home!
Dont Touch That Remote! A Responsible Guide To Writing Teases
Lessons From The War: Serious News Deserves Serious Writing
The Rules Have Changed (Written 2 weeks after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks)
Ear Of The Beholder: Does Racism Creep Into Your Writing?
Too Much Wow!: When You Have Great Stuff, But You Cant Use It
When Heart And Brain Clash: The Ethics Of Newswriting
Dumbing Down vs. Clearing Up: Explaining Without Patronizing
Gone In 14 Seconds: When You Have To Make Your Point In Less Time