When I was a reporter, the deadline was king. Well, OK, the story was king, the deadline was … queen? There was a lot of pressure. But wasn’t a bad thing, necessarily. After a while I loved that rush, that extra stress, with a copy editor reading over my shoulder, checking my lead so he could start working on a headline or decide where to place the story.
Believe me, it took a long time for me to get used to having someone read over my shoulder. It took a long time for me to conduct an interview with people around me, too. I actually used to be incredibly shy. I thought everyone was listening to me, and that surely I’d ask some incredibly stupid question.
As a reporter you learn quickly that it doesn’t matter if you ask a “stupid” question — you don’t put the stupid question into your story; you write about the answer. I would prepare for an interview with a list of set questions, and I’d sometimes go down the list as I talked to the person on the other end of the line, but I learned to be flexible and deviate from that original list. Often my source would go off on a tangent, and that tangent would become the story … I had to be quiet and listen. Have you ever seen an interviewer on TV who loves to hear himself talk? He may be missing something very important that the source wants to say.
When covering a late meeting or some late-breaking news story (usually some fire or major accident) I’d do my interviews, put my notebook in my bag then rush back to the office. I’d be writing the story in my head. Ideally, the lead and the first graph or two were done before I logged onto my computer. The editors would have already reserved a spot for my story so they’d tell me the inch count and I’d start pounding away at the keyboard.
A long time ago I taught myself touch type, which helped tremendously on deadline. But some of my friends in the newsroom who’d never learned touch type were just as fast as they used the hunt-and-peck method. I’d write fairly clean. My ex-boyfriend, another reporter, would pound out a story and never bother with Spellcheck. “That’s what editors are for,” he’d say, in his blustery way. He was a great reporter and he got away with this attitude. (The editors are there to fix mistakes, but as a writer you are supposed to check your spelling and grammar before sending.)
When I was reporting on a really big story, on deadline there was a fantastic rush. Have you ever seen the movie, “The Paper,” where the character played by Randy Quaid sits down to write a story and as he types, he blurts, “It’s like butter!” That’s what it was like. It was like the story took over and just flowed from your fingers.
It didn’t always happen like that. Some nights were simply grueling and you had to write the story first before the lead. But I can’t say there were many times I missed a deadline. It looked really really bad if you missed a deadline. And it’s a very rare occasion where they will hold the presses for you.