News Engine

Stop the Presses! Newsroom Chaos on Election Night

October 20, 2021 Times-Shamrock Season 1 Episode 5
News Engine
Stop the Presses! Newsroom Chaos on Election Night
Show Notes Transcript

Election night can be chaotic in any newsroom. Times-Tribune news editor Chad Sebring talks about the process, what happens if there's an upset, and the time he got to say "stop the presses!"

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I'm Ed Pikulski. Welcome to news engine and inside look at how and why we publish news and events. Today on news engine we'll discuss the chaos of election night. Chad Sebring is news editor at the times Tribune. He's been a journalist for over 20 years and has seen his fair share of elections. Welcome aboard Chad. Thanks, Ed. Thanks for having me. Now you're the news editor at the times Tribune tell us what the news editor does. Alright, news editor just kind of in a nutshell on a on a daily basis handles well it used to handle just print production of the of the paper and now obviously, there's all kinds of formats that we're dealing with from the website to social media. So we handle a lot of that and there's a lot of decision making as far as what stories we're going to publish where we're going to publish them headline writing photo gathering, everything kind of a jack of all trades type of job so you're the guy who when I walk into the store and I see the newspaper sitting on a rack you're making the decisions about what we see above the fold of the paper so to speak what people see in the display generally speaking Yeah, we have a meeting every day to kind of nail down what the page one lineup is going to be. And maybe what our best story is and what our best images are from our photographers things like that. But generally speaking Yeah, at the at the end of the day, we're deciding Okay, this is going to be the lead headline This is going to be kind of down page still important story but we're gonna move it down page a little bit and now I'm curious about this because I I've seen it but you live it election night, dozens of candidates. Now depending on the election, there could actually be hundreds of candidates if we're in a primary election and you know, there's a ton of municipal races, but we read all of the coverage the day of the election and the day after the election. But how long before the election do you start planning the coverage? I'll tell you the two dirtiest words and newspapering is municipal primary okay. You deal with with school boards and tax collector and auditor for places like the farthest reaches of our coverage area like Vande Ling and things like that there's just so many people but as far as planning it's it's already started on the assigning editor side okay, these are the races that we're going to cover this is the person who's going to cover them on our end we're probably what about three weeks out now now it's it starts right now gathering gathering photos getting a handle on all the races getting a handle on the amount of space we're going to need who's going to handle what we're doing it now so you've got some reporters that are covering the different races they already know what they're covering chances are it's a beat or location that they're familiar with. But you're starting to get in your mind now Okay, this is going to be a big race or this is going to be a hot race or a close race. So this is probably going to lead or dictate what goes out front on page one yeah, this is this is different than kind of on the daily basis one of the great things about newspapers is you come in and every day at work is different. You know, the stories that we're writing about are different elections are a little bit of a different animal you have an idea if the Scranton Mayor races is going to be the big race weekend kind of plan for that and say okay, this is clearly the most high profile thing this is going to be the main the main story on page one, this is going to be what's above the fold as you as you mentioned before, so it's a little bit different that way but because it's an election things happen right now so much has changed over the more than 20 years that you've been in the newsroom but give me kind of a before and after give me a sense of what it looked like 20 years ago 2025 years ago just kind of paint that picture for me and then we'll circle back to what it looks like now. Well I the biggest changes obviously 2025 years ago we were focused solely on what was going to land on your doorstep in the morning right? We're focused solely on on the print edition. Now obviously the biggest difference is that we're kind of feeding the feeding the website all night long with updated stories and social media accounts as well as dealing with with the print paper. So that's that's the biggest difference but the the whole the whole thing is is a lot different. I remember the first the first election i i covered I two quick stories. One, there were all these people in the newsroom and I didn't know it this is this is 2020 years ago and I'm sitting there and I'm dying. I'm doing my work. And there's people like over my shoulder like checking out what's going on. And they were kind of designates from candidates because all the information fed through our newsroom. We were kind of the first with first with the results. So I Don't think people a lot of people may not know or even remember that we were, I'm going to call us an election bureau or an election return center in a sense where, like you said it was the candidates that were here. But also other media would come. So the TV stations, the radio stations would all be somewhere in this building. And we would be the the funnel. Yep. So to speak for the returns, and we would get the returns and then kind of distribute them to everybody else. And my painting that picture correctly. Yeah, that's Yeah, that's accurate. And I mean, obviously, with the, with the growth and technology that that that has since changed, but it was such a weird vibe to walk in to walk into work, when that was happening, where you were just kind of the center of everything, you'd have reporters out getting results that were posted on VFW doors, because that's, you know, you voted at the VFW or the church, and they would be there and they'd be writing down writing down tallies, neither calling them into the newsroom, or hustling back if it was close into the newsroom, and we would go from there. So it was it was it was a really it was a really interesting interesting time ya know, back in that day, too, you know, there was probably I don't know 120 people or so in the in the newsroom working and then add you know, a few dozen more like you said, from you know, candidates and then you know, other other media so, you know, it was a it was a pretty busy play. Yeah, it was a scene there's, there's no question about it. It was a, it was a wild time. But but but it was great. And there's nothing like and I sound like the old man yelling at the cloud. But this is this is more this is more of, it's more of a recollection of just the energy that comes with an election night when you're when you're a journalist, even even today in an operation that's that's more streamlined because of how technology moves. There's still nothing like an election night. In a newsroom. There's a genuine buzz. And there's, you know, everybody is wearing their Sunday best so to speak. white and blue tie a lot of traditions that we have. We don't do a lot of bunting in the in the newsroom. But we do. We do the red, white and blue ties. And you know, our reporters are out in the field. So some of them may wind up on a camera somewhere. So they want to want to look good. Absolutely. I know pizza in the newsroom is a big tradition. Election Night, we actually feed the staff, the hope is everybody starts early and Rudy works late. Check the social media accounts of any journalist working in this building on election morning. And you can tell they're already looking forward to pizza saw. That's just that's just was just one of the one of the things about it, I guess. So now 20 years later, it's a little different. there's not as many people but you're now producing news constantly. So the updates are flowing. You're not just putting out the newspaper, you're also publishing a website. And as you mentioned before, social media, so that's changed, you're not writing one story for the end of the night, you're writing that same story, how many times it's a really, it's a really interesting process, how many times you write the same story, I mean, it's gonna it's gonna vary based on maybe the importance of the race, how quickly you can get calls back and stuff, but just if you're going by updated numbers as they come in, because we've got we're not waiting until the end of the night to see okay, well, we've got, you know, 98% of the precincts reporting. We're writing stories at 20% at 40%. And the beauty of it is it shows trends. And this is where this this may be an important thing to point out about about journalists, you take someone like Boris who is the who's our who's our main political writer, when you're that knowledgeable about the area and the precincts and the wards, and so you see 40% of the vote in and Ed has a huge has huge lead. Maybe that doesn't account for a neighborhood Ward three. That is typically a republican or democratic stronghold. Those vote tallies aren't in yet. So now we can look at that and say, Okay, listen, Ed has a big lead. But Chad for example, is likely is likely to make a push when those numbers come in when Ward three numbers come in just as an example. So that's kind of the the context that we provide and the reason for writing those updates so frequently is we can offer those those tips on how it's going to trend so when you're reading a story on election night, you come to our website, and you're reading a story about we'll just throw it out there the mayor's race. And and a guy like Boris says candidate a has the lead with 60% of the vote in but such and such precinct hasn't reported yet. That's kind of a tip. That's a little bit of a We know that's absolutely a tip. And then we can I mean, we can look at times at historically how that word how that word is done, hey, this is a heavily democratic area. Once this comes in, you can expect maybe the challenger who's down in the votes to pick up 1000 votes here. 500 votes here. So now you've seen so many elections over the years now we don't call elections we know we absolutely don't do that we're not television, when it when we don't, because we can we see how that can go. And I'm going to talk to you about that in a little bit. But when when there's a winner, when the votes are done being counted, or when someone concedes, we say there's a winner, but you've got to be tempted That I know you can't do it. But But you know, there's got to be a point in the night where, you know, candidate a has lost or won. Well, I'll tell you, that's when we start we start crafting headlines in that direction. You can always I mean, in what you'll find in all of our stories are all of our tabulations, his results are not official, you'll find those words results until the until the county or whoever certifies the election, which is days later, which is days later results are not official. But yeah, I mean, if if you capture 70% of the vote, and there's 98% of the vote counted, you want and nobody can see is an election they think they want. Yeah, yeah, your guys says, you guys says, I can see it. I didn't win, right? He didn't win, right? And then we were comfortable saying, Okay, yeah, this this person won, this other person conceded. Maybe in this day and age that's starting to share that's starting to change a little bit, hey, that could be a little bit of a gray area. So what happens when it all blows up, though? What happens when the candidate we think is going to win? Doesn't? How does that change what you do because now you've got a different headline, a different page, maybe even a different lead story? Well, one and first thing to always note is that is that as a team effort, five, five to six copy editors, who are the ones building the pages, kind of helping update the website, thing, things like that. So usually, it's a quick huddle of, hey, here's what we're going to do. We're going to switch this story out because we got this unexpected result. It's an upset it's a bigger deal. We're going to put this here now as as a matter of kind of context you'll remember the remember the Bush Gore, presidential election. So there there there existed a couple 1000 copies of a front page of The Times Tribune that said that Al Gore had won that election that was when CNN if I remember correctly, CNN called it for Gore. It may have been may have been network news at the time, but either way that kind of it was somebody called it for gore there was if I remember correctly there there there was some bubbling up across all media that mean okay, gore one, so so our initial front page didn't declare winner or initial, our initial trying to remember if we did, if it, it did to close the count. Yeah, it couched it, it couched it a little bit. And then we used to, we used to have a post election party, and we would go and we would get together and hang out because it's a it's kind of an anxiety filled, filled night. It's just a breakneck pace the whole nights we would unwind a little bit with a party. Well, I went down to I went down to the party after the after the page was gone, saying hey, so the newspaper has been put to bed, it's put to bear they're making it it's being printed out, you're done. You go have a beer, they're making plates, they're doing their thing as far as nice paper production. And we have a TV where the party is, as Tomaw or Peter Jennings one of the one of the legends of the industry standing there and I'm watching it with with my colleagues and all of a sudden News starts breaking that Florida is very much in play and maybe and maybe for bush and now we're looking like we're gonna call this election that's a massive moment of pan right so now we've got 1000s of papers that we've already made and they're already being put on trucks to go to some of the farther you know, reaches of our home delivery area that say the elections too close to call. But now someone is saying we think we have a winner. We think we think we have a winner. So just real quickly, what we do is mice myself, and I think I think the executive editor and maybe I wasn't the news editor at the time, I think I was the assistant news editor. But I was handled on page one. We rush upstairs and this is the there's if you've ever seen like a journalism movie You know, they they make this thing of, you know, somebody call on the press room and be like, Stop the presses, you'd spend your whole career in the newspaper industry. And almost nobody ever gets to say Stop the presses. You never you never get to say, and the guy answering the phone at the press, by the way, isn't very receptive to that, because of what I just said, we've got 1000s of these things in a truck on their way somewhere, right? But sure enough, and I remember I remember saying to my boss, I'm like, I think I have to say it. I have to, I have to call them I think I have to say it. And he was like, Yeah, Yeah, you do. So maybe maybe the most glorious moment of my career, at least memorable is I got to call call the printing plant and be like, Guys, you have to stop the presses. And not surprisingly, not surprisingly, what I got is what said no, seriously, you have to stop the presses, there's a good chance that we don't have an entirely accurate front page going out, it looks like this election is good is swinging the other way. So you Stop the presses you you redo page one, you replayed it, so to speak, they fire the press backup, this probably doesn't happen in 10 minutes, this probably takes an hour. Yeah. And now they're making more copies of the paper with your corrected headline, but in presumably getting rid of the previous right. I think I remember making a point to the press like, hey, if those are on trucks, get those trucks back, do not let those first those first ones out the door, right? I mean, the, for all for all of the talk anymore. And you know, and somewhat ridiculous talk of fake news and stuff. The number one job that we have is get a right and that's it's, you know, I and I tell people this kind of ad nauseum, like for all the things that we do the number one job is make sure you're right. Anything less than that violates what we do. And there's nothing more if you if you want to imagine that get it right world. You're a guy who's called a plant where they print papers to tell them to stop printing the papers. print a new paper, and if possible, get the other ones with a maybe incomplete or inaccurate headline back, get them back right which which isn't quick and it's certainly not cheap, right? And that filters all the way down the chain. So it's the newsroom folks are now redoing a page one the printing guys are now reprinting it, the truck loaders are now loading it the drivers are now delivering it and the poor guy at the end of that chain, well there's two people at the end of that chain, the delivery guy is now delivering a paper that is way later than what he imagined. And the customer is waiting for a paper that he likes to get there, you know, four or five in the morning might not be shown up until six or so now. The to their credit to their credit. Those guys those guys worked so hard to get those those papers that we didn't want out off the streets I have I have this vision in my mind of some guy with a bundle about to throw it off the back of a truck. And then all of a sudden pull all of a sudden pulling it back. But we did we did the right thing was that was that first edition wrong? The history would say it probably wasn't wrong because we kind of too close too close to call. Well, it took it took the better part of what two months to roughing around had to go to the Supreme Court to figure out who to figure out who actually won. But in addition to making sure you're right. Part of part of our job is to do it quickly too. And that's those two things are in direct opposition at time because you know, quickness tends to lead to sloppiness. But that's kind of the cool part about what we do is you have to do it quickly and you have to do it accurately. those are those are basic tenants of how we operate. People expect that from us and they should Yeah, absolutely. That should be the standard front page of the newspaper. big headline, so and so has has one you kind of touched on it before but how many folks are vying for writing that headline and everybody because you guys take great pride I know that people know this you take great pride in writing a great headline so there's more than one of you you don't just say here's the headline so you've got how many how many of you are trying to write that headline there's well there is certainly everybody on the on the copy desk, which are the main headline writers and people who are building the pages. Occasionally you'll get a get a tap on the shoulder from someone like say, the executive editor. Hey, I like I like this headline. I have this idea. But I will say all of them are welcome because the I love it's the loneliest feeling in the world. But when

it's 12:

30 at night, and you've got three minutes until you have to press the button to send this page in order to make deadline, and you don't have a good headline on a big story. That is a miserable miserable feeling. So you've got, you know, the better part of half a dozen people trying to write the headline, maybe some pressure from someone somewhere to say I like this headline better than that headline. How many versions of that headline Do you think you'll see or vet or thumbs up or thumbs down too. By the end of the night, the number is probably high but the headline headline writers are a little bit they're a little bit of a weird group. Because there's all kinds of headlines that you know are going to be rejected but are funny. Okay, you just kind of say out loud to get them out of the way so they don't come back. They don't come back later. So they don't resurface later. But Cecilia, Cecilia Baress have one of our really talented copy editors in the assistant news editor, when Paige when Paige Cognetti first became the mayor city's city turns to page or voters turn turn to page just a really nice turn of phrase captured, captured everything because we were coming off a scandal of the court right administration and kind of turning the page incorporating her name into it was just a really skillfully written headline and that was one that was written early when we kind of knew the direction that it was going to go. And that's one of the other skills of headline writing is when you've got it stop when you've got a great headline Stop, Stop Stop messing around with it. Let it go move on move on to the next thing and that was a case there we've got a couple of chances to get people's attention on the front page it's going to be that headline in that main photo headline and photo yeah that's great advice so when you've got it and it you have when you when you've got it stick to your guns and all that good stuff man that's that's inside but that's what happens at the times Tribune. Or I would say pretty much any newsroom right on an election night. I would think most newsrooms are pretty similar. It's a great night. Thanks for coming chat. Yeah. Thanks for having me.