Thanks to those of you who work on holidays
I took Thanksgiving Day off from work this week. That’s something most people might take for granted, but in the newspaper business – and most news media, for that matter – somebody must work every day.
As they say in the theater, the show must go on. The newspaper does not take a day off – except, in the case of The Union, most of us have Saturdays off, since we do not have a Sunday edition like the Bee or the Chronicle.
I’ve worked for seven-day newspapers for my entire career, at all kinds of hours. Like police departments and hospitals, somebody is on duty at a newspaper most of the time. Of course, there are normal business hours, where ads are taken and busi ness matters are dealt with, reporters gather information, and photographers shoot pictures. But after 5 p.m. is when stories are written and edited, and pages are designed. At The Union, our last press run is at about 1 a.m., although I have worked at papers where it is 2 a.m. or later. Somebody remains in the newsroom to check the first newspapers off the press. Then the pressroom employees must finish printing the paper and hand off to the Circulation Department, which must get the fresh edition on doorsteps by 6 a.m. By that time, the earliest folks are arriving to start a new day’s cycle.
I have worked every shift imaginable. At a morning newspaper, I came in at 5 p.m. and finished at 2 a.m. At an afternoon newspaper, I started at 5 a.m. and finished at 2 p.m. I had one weird shift in Honolulu from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. And that included every holiday at one time or another. Schedulers had to be sure people were on hand Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and New Year’s, too. It can play hell with family life.
But newspaper people pride themselves on never missing an edition. The Union published recently after a windstorm knocked out all power to our building at 10 p.m. When PG&E said it could be hours before power was restored, we activated our emergency plan.
Computer servers were disconnected by our technology director, Tom Harbert, and loaded into a car along with a couple of desktops computers and a laptop. Then people from the newsroom and the production department – accompanied by the publisher and advertising director – drove down the road to Auburn, where folks at the Journal were waiting by prior arrangement to connect us to their production system so we could print at their plant. Meanwhile, back in Grass Valley, delivery crews were alerted to the problem. Preparations were made for them to drive down to Auburn to pick up their bundles of papers.
However, about 2 a.m., as Tim Willis and Tom Confer were preparing the last page ready to start the press run at Auburn, word came that the power was back at The Union. It was decided that it would be faster to drive back to Grass Valley with photo negatives of the pages and print our edition there – which is what we did. The presses started rolling about 4 a.m., about three hours late. Amazingly, delivery folks for the most part still got The Union on doorsteps by 6.
Legends abound of newspapers continuing to publish during crises. One of the most gallant was the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, which won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1998, after a blizzard, a flood and fires wiped out much of the city, including the newspaper building itself. The staff relocated in a vacant junior high school, and for months afterward the paper was printed hundreds of miles away in St. Paul, Minn. They never missed an edition
At the Des Moines (Iowa) Register, I recall a blizzard so bad that hundreds of employees were put up at a nearby hotel because they couldn’t go home. We published, but couldn’t deliver for two days because the city was in gridlock. I recall reading of a newspaper in, I believe, Pennsylvania that published the next day even though a deranged gunman burst into the offices and killed two employees.
People at television and radio news operations have the same ethic – we must not fail to deliver the news to our readers, viewers and listeners. When some people say newspapers are only in it for the money, I can only shake my head, because in many instances of disaster or crisis, it would be cheaper NOT to publish. There are untold cases where newspapers have printed extra editions and given them away free to ensure the community knows what is going on.
So, in addition to thanking police, firefighters, the military, medical personnel and others who toil on holidays, I tip my hat to newspaper people all over the world who work every day and every night so that information continues to flow in a free society.
Richard Somerville is editor of The Union. His column appears every Saturday.
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