Monday, January 31, 2022

Call the pressroom

 You've seen it. A reporter dashes in to a busy newsroom with a hot scoop, and a crusty old editor picks up a phone, usually a candlestick, and barks into it, "Stop the presses!"

I've had occasion, often on a night when the Orioles were in extra innings, to call the pressroom about slowing or pausing the run to get the game score into a few thousand copies. (Really, nighttime baseball is unnatural.) But in forty years in the paragraph game I've only heard "Stop the presses" twice. 

The first occasion was the Saturday evening when Princess Diana and her boyfriend went for a drive. I was at the desk, and the Sunday edition of The Sun was falling nicely into place when a bulletin came over the wire services that Princess Diana had been in an automobile accident. My reaction was that of any seasoned journalist: "Shit!" I said. "We'll have to get something in about that."

The phone rang. Bill Glauber, then The Sun's London correspondent, was on vacation--in Paris. It was a serious accident, he said, and he would file. So we carved out some space on the front page for a story about Princess Diana having been seriously injured, and typeset the page for the first edition. 

The phone rang again. Glauber said we should be ready. "I think she's dead. They're not talking about her the way they would if she were alive or expected to live." 

We had just typeset the front page for the second edition when a bulletin came over the wires: Princess Diana dead. "Shit!" I remarked. And the news editor called the pressroom and said, "Stop the presses. We're tearing up Page One."

Forty minutes later, an eternity in press time, we typeset a front page with Princess Diana's death as the lead story, written by our correspondent on the scene. And in Anne Arundel and Howard counties, where we were then in competition with The Washington Post, the deadlines for The Post's Arundel and Howard editions were earlier than ours, and we beat them on the story on those jurisdictions. Sweet.

The second occasion was three o'clock in the morning after the 2000 presidential election. Half the lights in the newsroom had gone off automatically. We were holding Page One and one inside page for the election story. Finally a service called the election, and we typeset a front page with a BUSH WINS headline. 

The telephone rang. It was Paul West, from The Sun's Washington bureau. "They're still counting," he said. 

The news editor picked up the phone: "Stop the presses." We sent through a TOO CLOSE TO CALL headline and instructed the pressroom to junk any copies that had been run off with the previous headline, and also to destroy the plates immediately. We didn't want to be tagged with a DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN embarrassment. 

Last night The Sun's plant at Port Covington published the paper for the last time. The Sun has been printed continuously in Baltimore since 1837, apart from a brief interval after the Great Fire of 1904 destroyed the newspaper building, and tonight begins production of print editions at Gannett's plant in Wilmington, Delaware. 

The presses have been stopped.