September 7, 2012

Reflections on the Newsroom

No, not this newsroom...
THIS newsroom.

This summer I peeked behind the curtain of the great and powerful Winnipeg Free Press, working as a copy editor on the night shift (editing the "news" segments of the paper, as opposed to sports and arts). Now it's autumn and I've returned to school, it's time to talk smack about my former employer, right?

Wrong - I'll leave that to the buzzing horde of online commentors who live to criticize (abide to deride, remain to disdain...).

Because I think the Free Press usually does a pretty good job covering the many, many events shaking up Winnipeg and/or Manitoba. Do they miss sometimes? Widely. They'll admit they do. But they regularly are the leading (if not the only) coverage of breaking news, political subterfuge and artistic events.

So the following is not a townsfolk-with-a-pitchfork-style rant. It's just three nuggets I picked up that might come in handy if you ever need to interact with a newsroom yourself.

Downtown, viewed from the distant offices of the Winnipeg Free Press.
1. The newsroom is in a rush

There may be moments when a reporter is waiting to hear back from a contact, an editor is waiting to hear back from a reporter, a copy editor is waiting to get a page from the editor (etc). But in the meantime, everyone is following up other leads, scanning the competition's tweets, reading the wire. The newsroom is always busy - and it switches to a rush in the evening as the print deadline looms (10:50 PM for the Free Press). It gets super quiet in the newsroom as everyone races the clock to put in the best performance possible.

Moral: Don't waste the newsroom's time. I witnessed a PR person call at 10 one night to deliver some not very important news. As soon as he was hung up on, he was cussed out for calling near deadline. On the other side of the coin, I've heard editors muttering under their breath, "Please be writing the story on the road, please be writing the story on the road," as they wait for a photographer to drop a reporter back at the office. (They were often disappointed.)

A newsroom, sans power, is a tense room. Happily, the sun was still up.
2. The newsroom is depressing

Newspaper people are stereotyped as cranky, cynical, angry, or just bitter. And it's true.

OK, OK, it's not totally true. But when a person wades through murders, thefts, stabbings, beatings, dismemberments (which happened a LOT this summer - eep), abuse and cataclysms on a daily basis for their work, it takes a toll. For me, the most depressing aspect of the newsroom was the police scanner. Every media outlet is equipped with a scanner to listen for breaking emergencies; it's kept on all night, at a high volume. The most frequent call? Young female with lacerations to wrists.

Moral: Cut news people some slack if they're grumpy; you don't know what story they just covered.

Hey look - it's tomorrow's newspaper, today!
3. The newsroom loves a great story

News people got into the business because they're junkies - they love a good story, they love a scoop, they love uncovering the truth and sharing it with the world. Even on the busiest day, a really great, well written story would cause colleagues to gather around a computer and quickly read. If you've got a story - as a journalist or a PR professional - with emotional impact that affects a wide audience, it will get picked up for love of craft alone.

But that isn't the only factor. The truth is, many days of the week the Free Press looks for content to fill its pages. The wire services (Canadian Press and Associated Press being the biggies) have been noticeably cutting back on staff and resources - they're no longer a reliable source for "filler" stories. Local reporters are being trimmed down to keep costs low, while the advertising department is trying to keep the page count up to maintain salable space. The result is any night there isn't a murder, fire, high-profile legal case or emergency, the newsroom is hungry for a good story.

Moral: If you have a story to pitch, especially one that isn't time sensitive, you can probably get it in the paper. Read the stories that do get picked up - the ones with legs, the ones with impact - and see if your story can be framed the same way. Controversy can be a good thing to include (so long as it doesn't hurt your organization deeply, of course). Struggle, sacrifice and resilience in the face of opposition - throw in a cute dog (if you can) and you're the front page.

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