After Deadline: In journalism, timing is everything

November 16, 2018

First, my heart goes out to the family of Karlys Koens, who died from injuries she received after being struck by a car early on the morning of Nov. 2.

Second, my heart goes out to Nicole Rae Alexander, the driver who struck her. Her fault or not (as I write this, the police are still investigating), she’s got to live with that, and I’d imagine that’s a heavy cross to bear.

But here’s where this all comes up in the newsroom. And, yes, I understand our newsroom issues are minor, a trifling, compared to the death of this woman, but on Nov. 5, as we followed up on the story, it became difficult to write.

According to messages written on the Caring Bridge site for Koens by her family members, she was being kept alive on life support while recipients were being found for her organs. (Side note: Be an organ donor. Kari Koens saved lives in losing hers.) However, this would end at about 10 a.m. that same morning we were writing the story.

So, we had to write that she had not yet died (true) even though we knew that by the time you received your newspaper that day, she’d likely have passed (true again).

Yes, our issues in the newsroom are trivial, but it’s part of what we deal with on any given morning as we try to be as accurate as possible.

On A Lark

That same morning, I called Ron Gray, one of the owners of Lark Toys in Kellogg, about a planned expansion of their building.

I found out about the plans to add an 1,800-square-foot multipurpose room when I was reviewing the Wabasha County Board of Commissioners agenda for the next day’s meeting.

I didn’t plan to drive to Wabasha to hear the board vote quickly and unanimously in favor of a conditional-use permit that contained three conditions, none controversial, to approve the expansion. That’s not worth two hours in the car.

So, I called Gray, asked him about the expansion plans and wrote a story Monday morning for the Nov. 7 edition — after the vote occurred on Tuesday around deadline time — as if the county commissioners had already voted yes.

You follow that timeline?

Then I planned to call Wabasha County Administrator Michael Plante late Tuesday, Nov. 6, and just verify that what I expected the vote to be is what actually happened.

Writing a story with facts that haven’t happened yet is a dangerous game in the news business. Don’t believe me? Just ask Arthur Henning, who infamously wrote the story under the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline in the Chicago Daily Tribune on Nov. 3, 1948.

A story like that gets into print before the facts are known, and you’ll never live it down.

And The Winner Will Be ...

Elections are famous for causing trouble like this. Imagine all the newsrooms that called it a night (or early morning) in 2000 thinking either Al Gore or George W. Bush had won the presidency. Well, one had, but none of us knew it for certain for several weeks.

First we all had to learn what a “chad” was, whether it was hanging or just indented upon, arcane rules about the Electoral College and when they vote, and more information about a woman named Katherine Harris, the secretary of state for Florida at the time.

Pretty much the entire news gathering world learned a lesson about jumping the gun on the facts that year. Then we all promptly forgot them in 2016 when — and I’m looking at you, Newsweek — publications across the country had their “Madam President” edition ready only to see Donald Trump elected president.

In Newsweek’s defense, special editions are like “Dodgers Win World Series” shirts printed up ahead of time. When they lose, the shirts are donated to poor countries.

Tom’s Dilemma

On Nov. 5, reporter extraordinaire Tom Weber, who is also a member of our editorial board, was tasked with writing an editorial for the Nov. 7 newspaper. Unfortunately, he needed to be done several hours before polls opened that Tuesday.

This not being Tom’s first rodeo, rather than write two columns — one about a blue wave, a second about a red seawall — he wrote a column about returning to civility. No more angry commercials, no more partisan mailers in the mailbox, no more Facebook ads on the candidates.

With luck, we’ll all see some civility return to American political discourse. That said, I’ll only believe it – and write about it – when I see it.

I learned long ago not to count my chickens until the eggs have hatched.

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