A newsroom's sounds -- and smells -- when a story breaks
It is 12:01 p.m. last Thursday. Excited twitters and laughter spill into the newsroom as co-workers from all departments begin to gather in the break room for a holiday buffet luncheon. I am at my desk and expect to join them shortly but want first to finish trimming a syndicated column to fit the space available on the Opinion page. Around me, a different kind of conversation builds.
Pete Nenni, deputy managing editor, to my left, is talking about a story with senior deputy managing editor Diane Dungey over the cubicle panel that separates their desks. His phone rings. Moments later, he slams the receiver into its cradle.
NENNI, to the editors at their desks around him: "Cunningham just pleaded guilty to first-degree murder."
DUNGEY: "Did we have anyone there?"
NENNI: "Mick [Zawislak, staff writer] said something popped up unexpectedly on the court calendar today, so he decided to go to court and see what was happening."
DUNGEY: "Can we get a couple sentences for the web?"
CHUCK KEESHAN, deputy city editor, sitting to Nenni's left: "Want me to start a file?"
DUNGEY: "Hey, Travis."
TRAVIS SIEBRASS, assistant managing editor for digital news, sitting in the cubicle to my right: "I heard."
DUNGEY: "Can we get something up on the web?"
SIEBRASS: "A couple sentences for the web would be great."
NENNI, answers phone: "Hey, Chuck, are you in the file?" He transfers a call to Keeshan.
DUNGEY: "Is Chuck on the phone?"
SIEBRASS: "I just converted the photos."
NENNI: "Mick said, 'I got two minutes.' He's dictating something to Chuck right now."
JIM BAUMANN, managing editor, passes by in the lane in front of Siebrass's cubicle.
SIEBRASS: "Did you hear?"
BAUMANN: "Hear what?"
SIEBRASS: "Cunningham just pleaded guilty. AJ's mom."
DUNGEY, to the room: "You guys holler when that's posted, and I'll add background."
NENNI, continuing the previous conversation on another topic: "Lauren [Rohr, staff writer]thinks it's a pretty good story ...
DUNGEY: "Sounds good."
NENNI: "About 20 inches."
DUNGEY: "Great, Lauren."
KEESHAN: "Picture, Travis?"
SIEBRASS: "I got one. It's under A.J. [in the computer system]"
DUNGEY: "Let me know and I'll add background."
KEESHAN: "I already added background. We'll have to add some more, but I got it started."
KEESHAN, to Siebrass: "OK, Travis, it's ready. (Walks over to Siebrass's desk.) Did you hear me?"
SIEBRASS, fingers tapping on keyboard: "Yes."
Keeshan returns to his desk. A couple seconds pass.
It is 12:12. A red "Breaking News Alert" banner appears at the top of the Daily Herald website. A photo of JoAnn Cunningham and a story about her court appearance lead the page under the headline, "AJ Freund's mother pleads guilty to murder."
At 12:15, a notification appears on my computer. The Chicago Tribune has just sent out a news alert on the story. Zawislak's instincts have paid off.
Nenni is back on the phone. He calls a reporter to say he'll need him to find a local story for the Lake County editions because Zawislak, who previously was assigned that duty, will have to spend the rest of the day getting reaction and details following Cunningham's surprise plea. Another reporter approaches him to talk about reports of a bomb threat at the Kane County courthouse. Moments later, he is talking to Dungey about wrapping up the story budget for Friday's paper.
It is starting to smell pretty good in here. The bed of cheerful sounds from the lunchroom is swelling. The tapping of plastic keys makes an intermittent clatter all around me.
The column I have been working on fits. I slip into a long line at the holiday buffet, share some chicken, sausage, cookies, laughs and sports talk with other writers and editors and return to my desk. By 1 p.m., the Cunningham story has been updated twice at our website. Zawislak continues to gather details from the McHenry County Courthouse and then from other sources and locations.
There are many nice things about being a newspaper Opinion page editor. Sometimes, though, you can't escape envy for working in breaking news.
Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is deputy managing editor for opinion at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.