For decades, those three words have been heard across every newsroom in America. Coming from an editor’s mouth, they are as ominous as the rattle of a coiled Eastern Diamondback.
Put simply, they mean, “Leave me alone.”
Several years ago in another newsroom, a man had repeatedly asked our staff if we would like to do a story on his pet, “Jessie the Amazing Barking Dog.” According to the owner, Jessie could perform a number of tricks, such as barking twice to indicate that its master had two toy balls in his hands. We respectfully declined.
A few weeks later, the man walked into the newsroom unannounced at the worst possible time and asked again if anybody would like to do a story on Jessie the Amazing Barking Dog. We politely said no.
But he kept insisting.
“Is there a trick you would like Jessie to do?”
“No sir, we’re on deadline,” an editor said.
“Play dead,” I added, under my breath.
Disgruntled, master and Jessie left the office, never to be seen again. To the best of my knowledge, neither made the national news.
OK, such instances are the exception. But the average reader doesn’t realize what journalists will do to meet their deadlines and the pressure they’re under.
In another era, low visibility was typical in newsrooms, thanks to the ever-present cloud of cigarette smoke. Coffee cups cluttering desks, clicking typewriter keys, loosened neckties, sweat stains on shirts, piles of newspapers everywhere – all telltale signs of a busy, if not frantic, newspaper staff.
After covering a meeting as a student journalist while working for the Gainesville Sun, I struggled to find the right words to describe action taken by a local board of adjustment.
“I need that story now,” my editor said, glaring at me.
But I wasn’t finished. Guess he added an ending. Can’t say how many times I’ve heard “I need that story now,” and how many times I have uttered those words myself.
The editor needs time to read the story, make changes and ask questions. So does the proofreader. The backshop needs time to slap it on the page. The presses must roll on time or the carriers can’t deliver the paper on time. And if that happens, sin of sins. Some reporter will be relegated to writing obituaries, including his own.
Reporters sometimes had to dictate stories over the telephone, myself included. I loathed having to call in stories because I never knew if the story would be long enough – or even develop.
During my days at a small daily in Winter Haven, I covered the county commission. At one meeting, I was worried that I wouldn’t get a story about a sinkhole study to my fire-breathing editor in time.
So I asked the county commission chairman if he would move the item up on the agenda so I could call my story in by noon.
Guess the chairman liked me. He agreed and came through.
Dictated the story over the phone, and it ran in the paper the next day.
The fire breather was happy, for once in his life.
Today, at our weeklies, we don’t call in stories. Our building is smoke-free, and the newsroom is relatively quiet. Computers, laptops, smartphones, high-speed Internet and digital photography have practically eliminated the need to call in stories.
As deadline looms, we may have time to eat something for lunch, usually at our desks.
We generally are nice, too. Haven’t said, “leave me alone” in years, but deadline is deadline, especially on Mondays or Tuesdays.
Some readers might get aggravated if we can’t take time to chat with them if they drop by on deadline days. Leave a brief message, and we’ll get back with you. Better yet, send an email; at least we might be able to say, “Got it, thanks.”
We value all our readers, whether they bring us hate letters or flowers. On deadline days, you may leave correspondence and other materials with our receptionist, and she will make sure it gets in the right hands. Mine, if it’s candy.
Leave Jessie the Amazing Barking Dog at home, though.
Tom Germond is executive editor of Tampa Bay Newspapers