There are two widely different definitions for “deadline”. As “dead line”, two words, it refers to a line drawn in a prison yard that cannot be crossed by an inmate without risking a fatal bullet from the guard tower. The combined “deadline” is the time beyond which newspaper copy will not be accepted for the next edition. Tardy reporters may be fired, but they are not fired upon. Well, hardly ever. Some editors are very hot tempered.
As an old newspaperman I’ve always enjoyed movies based on adventures in journalism. “The Paper”, “All the President’s Men” and “Front Page” are my favorites. But I wouldn’t last long under the terrible deadline pressure that the reporters in those pictures had to endure. I wrote mostly for weekly papers with much less stress and usually I had no nerve-wracking deadline to meet. It was almost as casual as writing for this blog where my nap time might be scheduled between pages one and two.
It’s true, in my day I was known as “Scoop Newman”, but it wasn’t meant to imply I had a talent for beating rival papers with exclusive reports. I wasn’t good at that and had difficulty meeting deadlines. They called me “Scoop” because of my fondness for ice cream.
Covering a town council meeting I usually shared a press table with reporters from two rival dailies. My copy wasn’t due for two or three days. Theirs had to be typed and on their editors’ desks in two or three hours. The poor guys fussed and cussed when the meeting dragged on and sometimes rushed out before the end of business. The next day I would check the reports in their papers to make sure I had the facts straight and the names spelled right. Then I’d start typing leisurely.
I sometimes daydream about what it would be like to work in the frenetic atmosphere of a daily newspaper. It gives me chills. “Stop the presses! Tear out the front page!” Breaking news of city hall corruption!” the city editor shouts. “Newman, make some phone calls and give me 2,000 words of background. You’ve got 45 minutes.!”
I think I’d use those 45 minutes to type my resignation. Forget about the phone calls, I’d need two hours to type 2,000 words even if someone dictated them. The paper would be out on the street with a big blank space where my background story should have been. I would also be out on the street.
Of course weekly papers have deadlines too, but I’ve usually managed to cover events at least 48 hours before we went to press. I made an exception once when I had the opportunity to attend a press conference with Astronaut John Glenn. “Where’s your John Glenn copy?” my editor demanded an hour after I’d returned to the paper. I replied I was still deciphering my notes and trying to decide on a good lead. We ended up with him gripping the top of the page while I was typing on the lower half as he kept checking his watch. “Done!” he shouted and yanked the page out of my typewriter.
My abbreviated story ended with an incomplete quote from John Glenn: “The most important thing to remember about survival in outer space is…….” I phoned a few friends and told them how that sentence ended, but 20,000 other readers had to make their own guesses.