Sometime back in the rich Early Middle Era of my news career — 1987, I’ll call it, at The San Francisco Examiner — something awful happened at about 5 o’clock in the afternoon. A wire-service bulletin said an airliner had gone down somewhere down the coast. I was new on the city desk, and had just started my shift. I had been part of many newsroom scrambles for big stories on deadline, but I was never really in charge of the response. I wasn’t, really, on this night, either. I remember that the senior city editor grabbed a reporter who was just about to leave for the evening and told him he needed to fly down to the crash site. Done. I think my fellow editor collared two or three other reporters who thought they were going home and told them to stand by.
Just recounting the incident revives its horror for me, though I don’t think of it often. What made a more conscious impression, one that still rises to the surface whenever I’m in a newsroom–every working day, now–was the way the editors and reporters reacted to the simple suggestion that a story was happening, that game was afoot.
I’m thinking about that now because my current newsroom, at KQED Public Radio, is in the midst of trying to respond to this week’s problems on the Bay Bridge. Circumstances are a little different now. Much smaller newsroom–which means much smaller staff. No one to stop at the door on the way out and say, “Hey — wait a minute. Big problem on the bridge.” In fact, when the incident occurred the other night, I was winding down from our evening newscasts and getting ready to edit a feature story, a guy wandered over from an adjacent (non-news) department and asked if we knew what was happening on the bridge. When it came down to it on night one, it was me, the local traffic reporting service, and our evening announcer who held the fort. (One of the bosses said to me, “These all-hands-on-deck situations are fun.” I didn’t reflect until later that at first, mine were the only hands on deck.) I had started work before noon and sent my last new email of the night after 1 a.m. I complained mildly on Facebook that it’s harder for me to do those long news days and come back the next day to do it again. The very same editor I was so impressed with that evening back in ’87 responded to that note: “And yet … you’re still a kid.”
Not so sure about that. But some old news reflex is still there.