On deadline ... but for how much longer?


A few weeks ago, the NCAA men’s basketball championship game was a sports writer’s nightmare. It had nothing to do with the game between Michigan and Louisville, the result or anything like that. It was all in the timing. The game started at 9:27 p.m. on the East Coast. Which means for so many of the guys and gals on press row, it was a hellish deadline night.

This is not a new problem. Sporting events are starting later, to accommodate the national TV audience and its advertisers. This means a lot of times, writers are up against a hard deadline wall. It happened during Saturday night’s Final Four, too. The Syracuse-Michigan game tipped off at 9:21 p.m., and ended after 11:30 p.m. I talked to several reporters who covered the game, and they told me that their deadlines were between 11:45 p.m. and midnight.

Needless to say, there’s no chance to craft a well-rounded, analytical story. It’s hard to find a fresh angle, a unique take, a good perspective for your readers when you have to file a story that close to the end of the game.*

*(This was my only real problem with the Gregg Doyle-Jim Boeheim dustup in the press conference. There were writers in that room who needed to get quotes and get their stories filed, and Gregg picked that moment to get into a pissing match with Boeheim? That was crap.)

This is nothing new. Jim Kelley, the late Buffalo News NHL columnist, told the story of when he was covering Sabres games on the West Coast, he’d have to file his story AT the final horn. PR guys would be baffled. “You don’t understand the question - how long after the game do you file?” No! Kelley, would say. You don’t understand the answer! The second the horn sounded, he sent the story.

I had my share of tight deadlines. I wrote a 500 word story in nine minutes once. In the 2009 NCAA Tournament, the Binghamton-Duke first-round game I covered started a little after 10 p.m. My first-edition deadline was 12:30, final edition 1:30 a.m.

Journalists have a love-hate relationship with deadline - at least I did. Writing on a tight-deadline is what we do - especially in sports. I take great pride in my ability to write on deadline. But an early deadline means you don’t get a chance to develop any kind of interesting story. If your deadline is 20 minutes after the game is over, your story is not going to be a well-thought analysis of the game. It’s going to be a running game story, featuring play-by-play and a couple press-conference quotes. It’s probably going to rely on a pre-existing storyline, because you simply don’t have the time to come up with anything else.

But there’s a deeper question: How much longer is deadline going to be an issue?

Deadlines exist because of the print production cycle. This is not news. There comes a point each night where the presses have to start running, because tens or hundreds of thousands of papers need to be printed, bundled, put on a truck, delivered, etc.. Delaying the presses costs a newspaper money - there are overtime costs, delayed delivery, etc. Writing 40 years ago, Gaye Tuchman noted that the daily deadline is central to everything journalists do. In so many ways, that’s still true today. Writing on deadline is one of the defining traits of a journalist. It’s something we take pride in. It’s what we do.

But it’s increasingly becoming anachronistic.

There’s no need for a deadline structure online. There’s no need to file a story by midnight, if people won’t read it until the next morning. There’s no reason a column can’t be posted at 10 a.m., or 2:32 p.m., or at 6:17 p.m. Everyone always thinks the advantage of online news is its speed. But one of the advantages of online that no one talks about is its patience. There’s no need for a hard deadline. There’s no reason a writer can’t take her time to develop an analytical game story that goes beyond the play-by-play you probably already watched. There’s no reason a columnist can’t write something for the next morning, spinning the game forward rather than just looking back. As the journalism world continues to shift to digital, I think this will be one of the biggest changes to the way reporters do their jobs.

Our work is increasingly becoming consumed on screens, and yet we still write based on a production schedule created for paper.

The question is, how long will this be the case?