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.

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Uhh, Oops…

May 18, 2009

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So there I was; standing on the ramp at Pensacola Naval Air Station with dozens of cheering people welcoming a plane full of wounded veterans.

As the vets deplaned, the first was carried down the back stairs and placed in his wheelchair. He waved. Everyone cheered.

A big line formed, and all of the well wishers shook hands with the vets as they got off the plane and walked toward their bus.

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I’m running around like crazy trying to get good shots. It was hot that afternoon. Sweat dripped off the end of my nose and on to the camera’s LCD screen as I checked an exposure.

Then I saw it. Across the ramp. I twisted on my long lens and fired off a half dozen shots. “That’s the shot right there,” I thought.

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The editors thought so too. They ran it on the top of the front page. “Wounded Vets Arrive.” I love it when they run my photos on the front page. Seeing a photo you took through the front glass of a newsstand is so cool.

I didn’t talk to the guy. He was on the bus moments later, and I was still shooting. The next day, another reporter followed up on the story, and ran into the guy with the prosthetic leg. They chatted for a minute.

“By the way,” the reporter asked. “How did you lose your leg?”

The reply was rather sheepish. “Motorcycle accident.”

Whatever, I’m still putting the front page on my refrigerator for a while. 🙂


Time to notice

May 16, 2009

A last minute assignment this morning. Church members feed the homeless. Add it to the pile, I’ve covered plenty of these before. No biggie.

I drove up and pulled into a little church on Davis Highway. Heirs of the Kingdom Church — cool name. There were a handful of church members standing out front.

They took me inside. Introduced me to the pastor. They were all extremely nice. I was a little bit distracted. In the back of my mind, I was thinking about other assignments. Deadlines. Hours.

This is the first time the church has done one of these, and they decided to go all out. Along with showers, haircuts and BBQ ribs, they were giving out back massages and foot rubs. I was impressed. I fired off a few frames, knowing the photos would probably be buried in the paper. Feed the homeless stories are, after all, pretty routine.

Back in the office, while scrolling through my roll of mediocre shots, this photo stopped me in my tracks.

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The woman in the middle. I never saw her. Never got her name.  She must have come into the room as I was slinking into a corner to frame these shots. Before that, she came from some shelter, or camp, or God knows where.

She came for a warm shower and a hot meal. That’s what was on the flier. Imagine the surprise when she walked into that room. Scented oils in the air. Soft music. Massages. She sat down quietly, folded her hands, and smiled.

I never saw her.

It was quiet in the newsroom when I got back. Empty cubicles. Black computer screens. Except for mine, which glowed with emotion. It choked me up. It still does.

How many times before have I not noticed her? How many times have we passed on the street? In a shelter? At a soup kitchen? Me carrying my notepad and camera, skittering about and then rushing off, without ever taking the time to notice her.

Thank God that someone takes time.


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.


Stirring up trouble.

May 4, 2009

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So I’ve been stirring up trouble recently.

I spoke in a panel discussion for young aspiring journalists at a middle school a week or so back. Also attending was Grace White from Channel 3, and a couple of state-level education types.

It went about as well as something can at 9 a.m. I cracked a few jokes, (in my typical crude humor) and the kids seemed to enjoy it. Several hung around to talk with me afterward. Never underestimate the power of quasi-profanity when talking to middle-schoolers.

So sticking with that trouble-maker theme. I drove to Eglin AFB, three times the following week. The goal was to get up close and personal with this:

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The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was making its first-ever stop at Eglin, and I was on the list to get up close and personal with it.

But, as is often the case with things I’m involved in, it was a fiasco.

Tuesday was a bust. The super high-tech fighter broke down in Texas, and I drove back to Pensacola without a story.

The second day I got wise, and decided to wait until the plane took off on its two-hour flight, then race down the highway in an attempt to beat it to Eglin.

Poor decision #1: Trying to beat a fighter jet in a race.

At about 1 p.m., I got the call, and I hauled. The gamble paid off (barely), and me and the little war-hammer Honda made it to Eglin just in time so see it land.

I don’t have a decent long lens, so after a couple of lackluster photos of the landing, I started thinking “blog,” and took a bunch of shots of my compatriots for later commentary.

Poor decision #2.

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The plan was to watch the landing, then do interviews with the pilots and get photos of the parked plane. But as I’m packing up my stuff to head over and check out the plane, an Air Force Colonel walks up. His expression does not look promising.

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Because the pilots had come in so late, they were running in to “crew rest” issues. All the photos and interviews would be postponed until the next day.

The editor is going to love this phone call….

I’ve got, like, three usable photos, and I don’t really like any of them. This is what ran on A-1.

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I stopped to pick up the paper while driving to Eglin the next day, and grumbled to myself when confronted with my mediocrity.

This time it’s serious.

When they take us to see a test flight, I’m thinking “wingtip vortices.”  When they take us to see its simulator, I’m thinking “panorama.” When they take us up to see the plane and interview the brass, I’m thinking, “I need to get away from this group and get some better angles.”

Poor decision #3.

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Within minutes of wandering from the group, my absence was noticed, I was tracked down, and the Lockheed lass above firmly reminded me that I was to remain with the group at all times.

Minutes later, all the journalists were placed back in the van, and carted off without ever really getting a chance to photograph the jet.

But my two-minute elope was all I needed. As I previewed the pictures during the drive off the base, for the first time in three days, I liked what I saw.

Poor decisions, FTW!

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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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