The controlled chaos of real breaking news
By midafternoon on a Friday, the weekend beckons in a newsroom just as it does anywhere else.
That was the sunny mood on Friday, Sept. 20, as editors gathered in what we call the Page 1 Meeting, the daily get-together where editors map out the front page of the next day's print editions. The first crack at it anyway; news changes and the first draft of the front page frequently changes along with it.
In these meetings, the editors sift through story summaries and digital photos. For that Saturday, there was more news worth Page 1 than there was space for it. The decisions weren't going to be easy.
The news changes didn't wait for even the first gavel. Jim Slusher, our deputy managing editor for the Opinion page, mentioned a text on his phone: Something "big" was happening at Woodfield Mall.
When major news breaks, the energy and self-directed chaos of a newsroom is something to behold. It transforms into a sort of music, a blended symphony, often synchronizing in the beginning without even the necessity of a maestro. People move into their places almost instinctively.
One editor peels off from the meeting to ask a reporter to make a call. Jeff Knox, our senior director of visual journalism, finds two photographers to head over to the mall. Someone else jumps onto Twitter.
There, a shaky video has just been posted of an SUV careening through the shopping center.
Deputy Managing Editor Pete Nenni pulls reporters Elena Ferrarin and Madhu Krishnamurthy off stories they are pursuing and sends them to the mall to see if, assuming it's safe, they can get inside -- or at least talk to people who are leaving.
Assistant Managing Editor Neil Holdway starts aggregating early reports into a basic story to post online and sends out the first breaking news alerts.
(Unlike the cable news networks, our breaking news alerts actually signal breaking news.)
Staff writer Eric Peterson hangs back to work in tandem with Holdway, updating the story as we get material from the field, from authorities and from senior staff writer Marni Pyke, who crowdsources on social media.
Knox tries to track down the owner of the Twitter video to seek permission to use it on dailyherald.com.
A handful of the editors around the conference table each pick a social media platform to search out witnesses to the event.
"We updated the story and updated it again and again with fresher material once things came into focus," Managing Editor Jim Baumann recalled. "We halted rumors that there was an active shooter. We told readers the man had been captured swiftly."
More than a dozen people worked the story, all working as one organism as quickly as we could to provide an up-to-the-minute report to you what had happened, and just as importantly, what hadn't.