The Last Press

May 31, 2009

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The Pensacola News Journal’s press will never run again.

For more than a dozen years, it’s rumbled to life like a dinosaur in the night. At about 11 p.m. the last plate is cut — several hours after most of the newsroom staff has filed their stories and drifted  into the dark.

Mirror images of carefully edited pages are carved on to shiny metal sheets and attached to the faces of a dozen massive machined drums. On the ground floor, enormous reams of paper are wheeled into position, waiting patiently under the hum of fluorescent lights to be fed into the beast.

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Upstairs, a half-dozen men stand at the ready.

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They poke and prod at panels and dials. Behind them, an electronic sign hangs silently on the wall. It reads zero. But not for long.

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A button is pressed, and a thousand tons of man and machine lurch into motion. Their mass and speed belie their delicate dance as they spread words and photographs across acres of white paper.

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Stacks of neatly folded pages pour from the beast like a waterfall through the rocks. They pass in a flourish under the watchful eyes of the half-dozen men, who grab still-wet pages at random and scrutinize them under bright lights, seeing imperfections invisible to my eye, and fine tuning the beast with a few taps on decade-old buttons.

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The cascade pours through the wall into a huge room that bustles with noise and motion. Pages are stacked, wrapped and carted away into the night. By daylight, they’ll be placed on front porches and driveways, stuffed into newspaper boxes or sold on street corners.

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It was our words. It was your news. It was our city. It was your press.

And before most of you knew, it was gone.

More than 80 people were laid off. The printing is done in Mobile now. No one really knows how much longer the rest of us will remain. Even the question if we will remain is uncertain.

Inside a quiet gray building in downtown Pensacola, we just hope your newspaper will survive.

And you should too.

reams staked

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Getting tight…

May 13, 2009

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Tuesday:

9 a.m. Stop by the newsroom. Cup of coffee. Check the schedule. Eleven stories due this week for three publications. Scheduling oversight? Nope. Better get going.

Volkswagen mechanic shop interviews for Sunday Life feature. No old-school Beetles or Busses around. “Dude, photos will be so much better with an old Beetle!” They’ll call when one comes in.

Back to newsroom. Set up photographers for weekend events.

Four hours on the keyboard writing about charter fishermen for Sunday Business story.

6 p.m. phone interview Perdido Key Association director.

Wednesday:

10 a.m. interview in Perdido Key for Pensacola Business Journal. Chatty interviewee. Quotable though. Runs long.

Hit the highway looking for photo ops. Key is deserted. Empty parking lots everywhere. Adjust and overcome… Sweet talk way up to condo balcony to shoot panorama of empty parking lots.

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Get back to car. Sky is pretty today. Shoot panorama of condos.

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Drive to interview near FloraBama. See abandoned slab and parking lot. Panorama? Why not? (Theme for story develops in head: Perdido lost).

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Interview, skip lunch, drive to newsroom, four hours on the keyboard.

6 p.m. Call Navy admiral at home to get info on breaking news story.

Thursday:

9 a.m. “Baby Milton” (dead baby found in woods a while back) autopsy report is complete. Two hours of incessant rapid-fire phone calls to Medical Examiner’s office trying to get a copy. Manager says she’ll fax it Monday. Telephone pestilence continues. Victory! Get faxed a copy. Write story.

1 p.m. Leave for event coverage at Pensacola NAS. Get phone call from VW guys. They have a classic Beetle in the shop for one hour. U-turn. Click, click, click.

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Show up for Pensacola NAS 30 minutes late, sweaty, with grease all over knees from shop floor. They’re still glad to see me.

Newsroom: write, file, run.

Friday: (Night Cop Shift)

1 p.m. NAS for event coverage. Flirt briefly with favorite TV news reporter. (Still no luck. I’ll grow on her come hurricane season.) Attempt to focus on event. Do interviews after event. See Admiral from Wednesday late phone call. Say hello. End up interviewing about unrelated story.

Newsroom: write, file. Call police/EMS/Sheriff’s office/fire departments to check for crime/carnage/crazyness. Joke with sleepy fireman.

9 p.m. Call county commissioners, Century Mayor, and County Tax Collector at homes and cell phones for breaking-news interview on closing Century Courthouse. Only Tax Collector answers. (Bless her heart!) Write, file, run.

Saturday:

8:30 a.m. Battle reenactment downtown. See photographer. He says I should have brought earplugs. Points to cannon in middle of street. Interview spectators. Interview participants dressed in Redcoat uniforms. Nearly have heart attack when cannon blast catches me by surprise. Ears ringing while writing gives inspiration for “fancy” story.

Write notes column. Feeling inspiration from fancy event coverage, write notes column fancy also.

6 p.m. meet friends at Pensacola Beach for beer/jokes/stories from the week. Laugh, smile, sit.

Two days off, then we do it again.

Journalism.


Access: unappreciated but awesome

April 19, 2009

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I complain too much.

The last couple weeks, I’ve been all bummed about the newspaper industry dying, and all of the accompanying inconveniences for journalists. Stuff like getting paid less and working harder and not getting decent equipment. Cry me a river.

I always forget that one of the best benefits of all is free.

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It’s not every day that you can stand in the middle of a deserted interstate and shoot artsy photos. (HDR by the way, day two of new hobby)

Even parking on the interstate is usually out of the question.

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Other drivers are slowing down to rubberneck, but thirty minutes earlier, I jumped in my car specifically to drive to Milton and see what was going on. Somehow, a notepad and a camera qualify me for pulling onto the median, getting out of my car, and snooping around the scene of an accident.

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As I get closer, a firefighter comes running toward me. I’m almost shocked. “Is he going to tell me to leave?” I start to prepare my verbal objection.

But it was a false alarm. He just wanted to give me a reflective vest so I would be safe. “Thanks man!” He walks me toward the wreck, and excitedly tells me how he was coincidentally right ahead of the truck when it crashed. He saw it in his rear-view mirror and was the first to call it in, and the first on the scene (about 30 seconds after the crash).

He was stoked. And his enthusiasm was contagious. And the wreck was REALLY cool.

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By the time I took this photo, it had completely blocked the interstate for more than an hour. It was a major mess. The driver was alright, but the DOT cleanup guys had their work cut out for them.

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Clad in my neon orange vest (which said “fire” on it, btw) I walked around for about thirty minutes talking to the highway patrolmen, the firefighters, the cleanup guys, and several of the drivers impatiently waiting to get on their way.

Even though the drivers were pretty disgruntled about the delay, all that I spoke with admitted that it was a pretty cool wreck.

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So, after I had all my notes squared away, and a couple dozen photos shot, I climbed back into my car, busted a U-turn in the median, and enjoyed a dozen or so miles of deserted Interstate on the drive back to Pensacola.

I’ve got to admit, even though the money is bad, the job security is non-existent, and the industry resembles a derailing freight train, being a journalist is a really cool job.

I need to stop complaining.


Time to play

April 9, 2009

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Sometimes assignments can suck.

Event coverage stories tend to be some of the worst offenders. More than once, as I struck off into the nether-regions of Northwest Florida on a Saturday morning, I’ve wondered what the 20 participants at, say, the First Annual Oompletown Doggie Parade, did to deserve a story in the newspaper.

But you’ve just got to choke those thoughts back. There has to be something in the newspaper while waiting for the next volcanic eruption,  hurricane, political scandal, or cheese contamination.

Thus was my mental process while driving to cover the third day of the Florida General Baptist Convention. Not that I’ve got anything against the Baptist convention. On the contrary, I think it’s a pretty significant event for Pensacola.

But still, how much fun can you have at church on a weekday?

As it turns out, a LOT!

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Read the rest of this entry »


Going too far…

April 4, 2009

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As I walked on to the crash scene, the body bag was being wheeled out of the garage.

“Why did they take the body inside?”

Seconds later, it hit me.

“oh s–t… he went through.”

Witnesses at the scene saw a 20-something male come blasting down Herman Avenue on a little Honda motorcycle. He was running wide open.

He didn’t let up as he turned and crossed the parking lot.

He didn’t let up as he took aim at the concrete wall.

He didn’t let up.

Investigators later found a suicide note at the man’s home.

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When he jumped on that bike and started to ride, it was quitting time on a sunny Friday afternoon.

It was the time of year when azaleas shake off the shackles of winter and burst into bloom, spreading an explosion of color across the city like wildfire on the wind.

It was the time of year when wisps of pollen dance in the sunlight before settling like a blanket across the hoods of cars.

The days when pale winter skin feels the first touches of the summer sun.

And when the weather is just right for a long afternoon drive.

I wonder if he noticed.

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Back in the newsroom, my editor tells me we don’t write about suicides. We won’t publish the man’s name. We won’t talk to his family. The photos are taking it a step too far. If no one else was hurt, we write a brief, we move on.

And I will.  Except for one thing.

With the economy in shambles, the industry dying, the stress rising and money tight,  I didn’t really notice the azaleas this spring. Then after a week of heavy rain, and a couple of cold nights, they were gone.

Next time, I’ll remember to slow down and look.


Back to business. (And how…)

April 1, 2009

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The last two weeks have been a blur.

Since I got back from furlough, I’ve banged out more than 15 stories (probably closer to 20). I’ve written everything from an in depth, 40-inch Pensacola Business Journal headliner about technology, to breaking news coverage about plane crashes and flood evacuations.

I’ve driven to Eglin AFB twice covering ground-breaking ceremonies on nearly $1 billion in construction. I got to rub elbows with Robin Roberts (the Good Morning America host) when she came through town. I got to drive to Pace to hang out with some folks who were putting on an OK to Pray rally on the front lawn of the high school.

There’s more… I know there’s more… But I sure can’t remember it at the moment.

Maybe some photos can refresh my memory.

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Oh yeah! There was the “drug deal gone bad” shooting at Circle K. The guy above was one of the “victims.” A girl who was in the car with him got shot in the back and was rushed to the hospital. (she lived) The alleged drug dealers fled the scene after the shooting.

I snapped this photo after he said there was no way he was going to talk to the newspaper.

Notice the “Macho” sign? (Oh yes, awesome composition, I know…)

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What is it with Circle K’s in this town? It seems like every other day someone is getting shot at one. That’s why I’m a BP guy… (Or Tigermart. They’ve got the best breakfast.)

And while we’re on the subject of phenomena I don’t understand, what is the deal with “Golden Shovel” ground-breaking ceremonies?

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Why? What in the world is the point? This is at the ground breaking for the Joint Strike Fighter program. I duly shot my photos, just like I have dozens of times before at similar ceremonies, but days later when I drove to Eglin again for another ground breaking, I thought they would break the trend.

It was pouring down rain. They had to move the ceremony inside. “Ah Ha!” I thought. No golden shovels today.

Wrong.

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Get a load of this! The brought a container full of dirt inside a museum, and they laid out plastic so they could do the golden shovels thing! I was absolutely astounded…

Whatever. In the end they got me. I took the picture.

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In other news: While I was at Eglin, I ran into someone I’ve only met once before.

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After the ceremony, Mr. Sansom ducked out before I was able to say hello. I think I know why.

I would have tried to chase him down, but they were pretty strict about where media could and could not go. As I was rounding the bleachers to go shoot some photos, a young officer chased me down, and I got placed back in the press area.

So I shot some photos of the press.

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This girl’s name is Christina Leavenworth. (I think) We didn’t get to chat much, but she seemed nice enough. She’s a TV reporter and also had to drive over from Pensacola for the ground breaking.

So tomorrow I head back to work, clueless as ever about what I’ll be covering.

One thing is for sure. This job is NEVER boring.


Sansom speaks at ethics breakfast. Reporter’s ethics questioned.

February 9, 2009

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Florida’s former speaker of the house of representatives spoke at a Governmental Prayer Breakfast Saturday morning. It was a bit ironic, because just last week, he stepped down from his position as speaker of the house amid a grand jury investigation into his relationship with a college in Destin.

Long story short, he accepted an unadvertised six-figure part-time job at the college on the same day he was sworn in as speaker. Many people think it may have been a reward for steering millions of state dollars to the school for construction projects over the last couple years.

Before the breakfast, I spoke with him for several minutes about the controversy. I asked him how he reconciled speaking at a breakfast about “moral and spiritual values in government” while he was under investigation for wrongdoing.

He answered my questions thoughtfully, and I wrote a story about it.

Cue the hate mail.

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Quite a few of the attendees at the breakfast were not happy about my story. One of the less insulting e-mails:

Your article in Sunday’s Local section titled “In midst of scandal, Sansom talks ethics” is why I get so disgusted with reporters. It’s call “half-reporting”. Whichever half sounds the worst, print it. …

… No mention in your article is the recipient of the “God In Government” award to Judge Mike Jones. Such an award merits at least a paragraph. If you are going to report on an event, report about the whole event. You totally missed the intention and the meaning of the occasion. …

This is a fair criticism, I think. I had some tough decisions about what to include and what to leave out while writing. But the focus was on Sansom and not on the event.

After I spent a half-dozen paragraphs explaining the controversy that followed Sansom winning the God in Government award last year, it didn’t feel right saying, “By the way, Judge Mike Jones won the award this year.”

We could have written a brief somewhere else in the paper, but that’s not always possible.

On Saturday, I was the sole reporter in the newsroom most of the day. Between writing this story, editing and filing the photos, researching and writing a column, writing the death notices, answering a torrent of phone calls, following up on structure fire calls that came across the police scanner, and trying to catch up from being out of the office on Thursday and Friday I just didn’t have the time.

It’s tough replying to e-mails sometimes. You just want to scream that you’re doing your best with what you’ve got to work with. You’re not trying to upset anyone. No, I’m not a member of the liberal conspiracy. No, I’m not a member of the conservative conspiracy. No, it wasn’t my intention to make someone look bad. Yes, I did go to journalism school. No, I don’t think that a monkey could do this better than me.

You just have to let it roll off your back.

In this case, a smaller story got usurped by a bigger one. I’ll try to make space for both next time.

Thank you for the e-mail,

-Weary Reporter