It's a Small World
Some editors are waking up to the fact that "foreign" news can really hit home.
By Charles Layton
Charles Layton (email@example.com) is a former editor and reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a former AJR senior contributing writer.
THE WASHINGTON STATE Apple Commission has been keeping an eye on this year's Mexican elections. What does a Mexican election have to do with apples? Well, according to the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, the last time Mexico elected a president its economy took a dive, and in the economic aftermath, the country's imports of Washington apples fell 50 percent. So if you care about apples, as people in Washington tend to do, you have to care about Mexico.
But also Taiwan, Japan and all the other distant places where people eat apples.
We're inseparable from the wider world. Sometimes this is clear, as when war breaks out or OPEC cuts oil production, but more often the world moves in a mysterious manner. The European Union puts a quota on bananas. Chiquita lobbies Bill Clinton to retaliate. He does, with tariffs on selected European goods, and all of a sudden, without knowing just why, Americans are paying more for coffeemakers and bed linens and Roquefort cheese.
"The line between foreign and domestic issues has blurred," John Maxwell Hamilton, dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, told a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors last year. "I think it's a mistake to see them as being separate categories."
That's a lesson journalists are starting to learn.
Partly, it's a lesson brought home by the global economy, but another factor is massive immigration. The world isn't just drawing closer, it's actually moving in with us. Ten percent of the U.S. population is foreign-born. Public school students in Burnsville, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis, speak 40 different languages. The number of Hispanics in North Carolina and Georgia has doubled in a decade. And there may be as many Buddhists in the United States today as there are Episcopalians.
"We're finding there's a shift in interest," says Sally Jacobsen, international editor for the Associated Press. "Papers on the West Coast are more interested in Asian news, Mexico, Latin American news, and this shift is even taking place in the Southeast part of the country. Some of the managing editors we talk to are increasingly interested in stories from Mexico, because their populations are changing."
Given such interest, you might expect to see more foreign news in the papers. To check that out, the Project on the State of the American Newspaper took a sampling this spring of foreign news coverage in 13 papers around the country. The results were no more encouraging than we had found last year, in a similar sampling (see "Then and Now").We found only three or four international stories a day in some of the papers we read. Even some large metro dailies--such as Cleveland's Plain Dealer and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch--only gave about 3 percent of their newshole to international news. The Indianapolis Star devoted less than 2 percent of its space to international news.
For page-one play, the picture was no better. Only two of our 13 papers had more than half a column of foreign news on page one per day. The Indianapolis Star went cold turkey for the whole seven days we read it--not a single foreign story out front. Four other papers--Wilmington, Delaware's News Journal, the Fresno Bee, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Macon Telegraph--only found room for a single foreign story on page one all week.
We also surveyed (as we have before) the number of foreign correspondents to see if more newspapers and newspaper chains had stationed reporters abroad. They had not. In general, then, one finds little improvement since a year and a half ago, when Peter Arnett wrote that foreign news coverage had "almost reached the vanishing point" in many mainstream papers ("Goodbye, World"). Arnett reported that in the 1990s, as global forces impinged more and more insistently on our lives, newspapers had responded by closing foreign bureaus and cutting space for foreign news.
He also wrote that many editors continued to "embrace the canard that readers don't want foreign news." That, at least, would seem to be less true now. Suddenly, it's no longer rare to hear editors, in speeches and at journalism conferences, affirming the importance of world news. The topic is back on the table.
The American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Freedom Forum launched a campaign two years ago to encourage papers to take foreign news more seriously. Last year the two groups cooperated in a series of workshops around the country, which are continuing this year. They also published a how-to booklet for editors called "Bringing the World Home: Showing Readers Their Global Connections." This 83-page handbook (a version of which can be found on the Web at www.asne.org) begins by declaring that the newshole for foreign stories has "fallen precipitously." It then suggests--with 30 pages of examples from papers as large as the New York Times and as small as Michigan's Petoskey News-Review--ways to cover the world with more imagination and zest.
The handbook cites readership surveys from eight news and research organizations, all reflecting the same thing: a high reader interest in world events. A 1999 book, "Misreading the Public: The Myth of a New Isolationism" by University of Maryland scholars Steven Kull and I.M. Destler, makes the same point in even more convincing detail.
Anyone who still doubts the relevance of foreign news should reflect on some of the events of the last year or so:
The United States went to war in Kosovo.
The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries cut production, and oil prices tripled.
Protesters in Seattle and Washington, D.C., disrupted meetings of the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, contending that these organizations steal American jobs, exploit the world's poor and contribute to pollution and rainforest destruction.
The Chicago Cubs and New York Mets played their season-opening games this spring in Tokyo.
Elián González came to our shores.
A series of attacks by "cybervandals" demonstrated how computer hackers continents away could disrupt U.S. infrastructures. The government is seeking ways to shield our banking systems, stock markets, military communications, electric power grids and telephones from such attacks.
Hispanic musicians dominated this year's Grammy Awards. The New York Times cited "an exploding Hispanic demographic presence" in the country, and both political parties agreed Hispanics could swing this year's presidential race in four large states--California, New York, Texas and Florida. Those states have half the electoral votes needed to win.
Trade with China became perhaps the most fiercely lobbied issue in Washington, involving big business, agriculture, labor, human rights advocates and environmentalists.
A car loaded with explosives was stopped at the Canadian border, and several Algerians were accused of plotting terrorism inside the United States. Three months later, 28 Arabs were indicted in Jordan in an alleged conspiracy to launch terrorist attacks in the United States and Israel.
Prosecutions began in New York against Islamic militants accused of bombing the World Trade Center and of trying to blow up the Holland Tunnel and the United Nations building.
The United States began testing an anti-missile system designed to shoot down nuclear warheads from rogue states such as North Korea, which, it is argued, might soon be able to hit U.S. targets with a small number of missiles.
Chrysler--one of Detroit's Big Three--is now run by Germans. On the other hand, General Motors owns Saab, Ford owns Volvo, and the old "Buy American" bumper stickers no longer make much sense.
EVEN IF PAPERS HAVE not responded to the new realities by providing more space for world news, some editors are seeking new ways to use the space they have. The Cincinnati Enquirer has a special page called "Crossing Borders," which gives foreign news a local spin. (It tries, for instance, to assess the impact of hurricane damage in Central America on local companies that do business there.) Portland's Oregonian has a "Newsfocus" page that highlights a single national or international issue and tries to explain it thoroughly. The Dayton Daily News runs a weekly "World Up Close" page. And the Anniston Star in Alabama runs a regular section for young readers called "Window to the World."
Most interesting of all may be the efforts of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane. In advance of last year's WTO meeting in Seattle, reporter Hannelore Sudermann wrote a story for the paper's Sunday business front. Here is how it began:
If you are eating breakfast right now, take a look at your plate.
Your sausage may be seasoned with fennel from India. Your eggs may have pepper from Indonesia.
The apple juice, while packaged in Washington, might be made with concentrate from China.
Perhaps the juice glass came from Turkey and the mug holding your coffee was made in Japan.
And the coffee itself sprouted in Colombia. Welcome to world trade.
It's what's for breakfast..
Sudermann, who specializes in trade, labor and agriculture, is one of several people at the Spokesman-Review who want to bring world events closer to home. Last summer she wrote about why nuclear tests in Pakistan were bad for wheat farmers in the Pacific Northwest. The 1998 tests had triggered automatic U.S. sanctions against Pakistan, which was eastern Washington's largest customer for wheat, one of the state's leading export crops. By crippling Pakistan's ability to buy wheat, the sanctions not only severed the Pakistan-Washington trade tie, they helped drive down the world price of wheat from $3.14 a bushel at the time of the nuclear tests to $2.81 a month later. Briefly, that was the connection.
Sudermann did not tell the story briefly, though. Based on three weeks of reporting in Pakistan, Egypt and Japan, she and photographer Torsten Kjellstrand produced a 10-page special section showing how Pakistani families subsist on wheat baked into flat bread on wood-fire skillets, and how Washington's exported wheat is used for sponge cakes and noodles in Japan, and for pocket bread in Egypt.
Sudermann thinks her readers have a clearer view now of how their local agriculture depends upon the wider world. She also thinks her paper is more alert to such matters. "If we have a little sale of wheat to China now, it goes on the front page," she tells me. "The editors have a better grasp of what a small sale of wheat to China might mean in the long run. People at this paper are getting a larger picture of trade and the world."
Another reporter at the Spokesman-Review, Jim Camden, cites the wheat story as an example of what he calls "the Spokane vortex."
"Almost everything that happens in the world," he says, "has a Spokane connection." Remember Capt. Scott O'Grady, the American pilot shot down over Bosnia and then saved in a daring rescue? O'Grady is from Spokane, so the war in Bosnia became a local story. So did the long-simmering war in Kashmir, because a Spokane man was among six Western tourists kidnapped there.
"A whole bunch of such things happened," Camden says. "It's almost like that game, six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, except here in Spokane it's more like two degrees."
Camden created a database for the paper, organized country by country, containing every international link to Spokane that he and his colleagues could find. Now if a story moves out of Russia, Guatemala or Sudan, editors can tap the database for local connections.
The Spokesman-Review's news editor, Kevin Graman, sat me down one afternoon and put the system through a little show-and-tell. As we sat there with our faces craned toward the screen, he clicked on a Windows icon and a simple menu took form, with buttons labeled "Country List," "Search by Country" and "Search by Region."
"We have a story about atrocities in Guatemala," he told me, "a little brief about finding mass graves. We thought maybe there might be a link there." He clicked on Search by Countries, typed in Guatemala and a screen of information appeared:
Link: The Catholic diocese of Spokane has supported a priest and other personnel for a mission in Guatemala since 1960. The mission is based in the mountain village of Ixtahuacan, some 120 miles northwest of Guatemala City.
Source: The Catholic diocese of Spokane.
Contact: Jerry Monks, an employee of the diocese.
Scrolling down, we find five other links for Guatemala. One is about products from a Spokane fish hatchery being shipped there so villagers can stock their lakes. Another is about a local Catholic parish that supports a Guatemalan village.
Early last year, in its Sunday edition, the Spokesman-Review began running a full inside page of international news based on these world links. The page, inside the A section, was labeled: "CONNECTIONS. A review of how world events affect the Inland Northwest." Every story was accompanied by either a local sidebar or a short introductory paragraph explaining the story's Spokane connection.
A wire story out of Moscow said religious minorities in the former Soviet Union were being persecuted for their beliefs. A staff-written sidebar told how that development had brought a tide of Russian immigrants to Spokane. A story about languages going extinct throughout the world was linked with a story about local Indian tribes working to preserve their native tongues. A piece on trouble in the Balkans ran with a simple boxed paragraph, stating that tankers and crews from nearby Fairchild Air Force Base flew missions to Europe to refuel NATO planes. And when children in Torreon, Mexico, were being poisoned by lead residues from a slag pile, Connections paired the story with an update from Smelterville, Washington, which had had a similar problem in the 1970s.
The Connections feature--a full open page with two facing columns of jump space--typically consists of two full-length stories, with local sidebars, plus a column of briefs. Each brief has a one-paragraph introductory link.
Graman tells me that making up the page "has taken a lot of creative thinking." He, Camden, Sudermann and others hold a brainstorming session every Tuesday and come up with a basic plan, which then gets refined as the week moves along. Graman says he takes advantage of Connections to run stories that otherwise might not make the paper. He was especially pleased with a link he spotted recently between a cyanide spill from a gold mine, which polluted the Danube River in Romania and Hungary, and efforts to open a similar type of mining operation, using cyanide to extract gold from crushed rock, in central Washington.
A downside of Connections is that the eight columns it consumes are not added space; they come out of the existing newshole, which means less space for other wire copy, or less inside display space for city desk projects.
It should be noted that for all the interest in foreign news at the Spokesman-Review, the paper doesn't run that much of it. In a week's worth of Spokesman-Reviews our researcher, Rachel Powers, found less than five columns a day. And on page one, over seven days, she found a total of only two foreign stories. (In fairness, by today's diminished standards, this isn't so bad. Judging by the table to the right, the paper publishes more foreign news than the much-larger Indianapolis Star, as well as the Topeka Capital-Journal and the Macon Telegraph.)
CONNECTIONS BEGAN AS a once-a-month feature, but the paper's editor, Chris Peck, liked it so well he insisted on making it weekly. When editors like Kevin Graman argued that there weren't enough local links for a weekly page, Peck told them to include national as well as international stories. Now the page heading reads: "CONNECTIONS. How world and national events affect the Inland Northwest."
Peck did not begin Connections because he thinks Spokane readers are hungry for foreign news. He argues (and surveys support this) that most people get their foreign news from the electronic media. So the newspaper, he thinks, needs something beyond traditional foreign news.
As we explore the Peck philosophy, he and I are consuming bowls of hot, rich soup--a specialty at Fugazzi's, a bustling downtown lunch spot just a brisk five-minute walk from the newspaper building. He's getting revved on the subject, almost as if the soup were fueling his enthusiasm. "The assumption on many of those wire desks," he says, "is that people need to know international news for the sake of international news.
"The little idea that we're trying in this Connections section--the little, teeny idea--is, we're saying to ourselves, that if we do research in our community, what are the actual links between our community and the outside world? Quantify it! Not just, This is a big story.' Not just, This is important.' But, what is the real link between the people who live here and the events that are happening?"
A case in point: The paper learned that a local company was selling grass seed to China--for golf courses, parks and the like. The Spokesman-Review had never heard of golf courses in China, so it asked AP to investigate. The wire story that came back from Beijing was that the Chinese were planting lawns to make their drab cities more livable. Some of the new greenery on Tiananmen Square came from seeds from the Washington company. Voilà! The Connections page paired the Beijing story with a piece on the local company.
This, to Peck's mind, shows how a local paper can be active rather than passive about international news--"going upstream with the connection," as he likes to call it.
Peck is vice president of the Associated Press Managing Editors this year, and he'll be APME president next year. One of his goals is for AP to provide a search function with its service, so newspapers could go upstream on a routine basis. He'd like to be able to search the AP's entire report by topic, just as users can now do on many newspaper Web sites and on services like Lexis-Nexis.
"Let's take Tom Foley," he says. "Tom Foley used to be a congressman here. He's the U.S. ambassador to Japan now. Well, I'd like to use Tom Foley as a keyword on the AP's international news report.
"Pakistan is the biggest buyer of Eastern Washington soft white wheat. 'Wheat and Pakistan.' I'd like to be able to search all the wires for that.... We're trying to see if we can find a way to sort the international wires under that lens of 10 or 12 local topics that we think are strongly rooted in Spokane. Instead of just taking everything over the transom, where the New York desk is editing and saying, 'This is the important international news.' "
(An AP spokesperson in New York later told me that AP members can do the kind of search Peck is talking about, but only if their own computer systems have that capability.)
As the waitress brings dessert, I'm starting to wonder how far Peck could push these ideas without warping the worldview of his readers. If China is threatening war with Taiwan and persecuting its dissidents and religious minorities, and all the while seeking better trade terms with the United States, isn't it parochial just to look at the Chinese in terms of how many Washington apples they eat?
"Yes," Peck says. "But if we can get readers to look at China as something that's grounded in their lives, if they start down that path, then there's a chance to say, 'By the way, there are some larger issues here.' "
He volunteers one qualification. He says you have to make exceptions for the really major story; you have to cover the Persian Gulf War, local link or not.
"The point I'm making is that every story that a newspaper writes about international news will be far more powerful if you are consciously and diligently writing in the connection. It's kind of like a nut graph," he says. "And in a way, I think the nut graph has always been a little bit off. It's been that the issue is some policy issue. The issue needs to be, here in East Overshoe, or in Spokane, this is the link between that story and you."
Peck is such a pleasant lunch companion, so sincere in his enthusiasm, it's almost painful to have to disagree with him. I can see that linking world events to the local scene has its benefits. It's interesting in and of itself, and it gives people a fresh perspective on the community. But it is no substitute for a well-rounded news report. A paper that requires a local link for every story puts arbitrary limits on what it can print. It manacles the imagination. Carried far enough, it would give readers a skewed view of the world, and it would even project a kind of fundamental selfishness, a working assumption that things only matter when they touch me or my neighbors.
To put this another way, the paper could come across as less generous in spirit than those people in Spokane who contribute relief to Guatemala or go willingly into combat in Bosnia--who do these things, perhaps, not because it aggrandizes them but because they think it's right.
Fortunately, for all Peck's passion, you don't really see his ideas reflected in the daily pages of the Spokesman-Review. The week I'm in town his paper is running the same stories as everyone else--the flood in Mozambique, China's stance on Taiwan--with no effort to draw a local link. The only time you really find that is Sundays on the Connections page.
I point this out.
"We haven't done this," Peck agrees, "but I've threatened this with my news editor. I've said, 'You know, Kevin, there may come a point where if you can't write that nut graph, we won't run that international story.'
"Kevin just had a fit over this. He said, 'There are some things you just need to do.' I said, 'OK, but in the back of your mind I want you to be thinking about it. What would happen if the edict came down that if you couldn't write that local link--if it wasn't in our database that you had access to--it doesn't run.' "
Would Peck truly go that far?
"When we started out doing this, that was my goal," he says. "I said, 'We want to have it in every story.' " But as the editors kicked the idea around, Peck was forced to give ground.
"The problem is, the links get old," he tells me, recounting some of the points raised by people like Kevin Graman. "How many times can you say, 'Washington exports apples to China' or 'wheat to Pakistan?' Another thing we got into is, what if the link is not a serious link? What if the link is, 'Washington State's Ping-Pong team played China to a 4-4 tie last fall?' "
These obstacles don't seem to have discouraged Peck. He still wants to push the idea as far as he reasonably can. "I think if you are going to be true to this," he says, "I think you would try to find a workable link to every wire story."
RALEIGH'S NEWS & OBSERVER takes a more traditional approach. The News & Observer is larger than the Spokesman-Review--180,000 daily circulation to Spokane's 128,000--and its A section is several pages thicker. Some days you find only four or five columns of foreign news there, but other days it goes to 12 or 15 columns, a respectable amount for a paper of the News & Observer's size. However, Anders Gyllenhaal, the paper's executive editor, isn't happy with his paper's presentation of foreign news. ###
"It's not done in an orderly fashion," he tells me. He explains that the paper can give logic and structure to its metro, sports and business reports because those have daily section fronts, where editorial judgment determines the display of stories. But the bulk of foreign news--and national news as well--has to be crammed into the jagged, unforgiving shapes defined by the ad placement in the A section.
"There's not much editing," Gyllenhaal says, "in the editor's sense of choosing stories of importance. They're just kind of squeezed in there. The other thing that happens when the pages are like that is, there's no room for photos and illustrations, which I think are a pretty important part of the equation."
His solution--which he's already negotiating with the business side--would be a full open page, somewhere in the A section, for the display of national and foreign news. He thinks he'll get that sometime this year. It likely wouldn't be extra space, but it would be better space.
Meanwhile, the guy at the News & Observer who has to wrestle with the ornery space configurations is the night wire editor.
Bob Kornfeld got started in the news business emptying trash cans at a local paper in Lawrence County, Missouri, where he grew up. Today, he's a pleasant-looking guy of 38 with wire-rim glasses, a short chin-beard and black curly hair. As he came on duty one afternoon, I plopped down beside him to see if I could observe firsthand the problems Gyllenhaal complains about. After all, those problems are shared by newspapers the world over.
"Wire editors are news geeks," Kornfeld tells me by way of self-description. "I'd just as soon do away with the sports section and use all that space for news. But I know that's never going to happen." Kornfeld hates the news on TV because it has no depth. He listens to NPR and CNN radio--and, of course, he devours the news wires five nights a week at work.
By the time he shows up at his desk near the center of the newsroom, drapes his denim jacket over the back of the chair, logs on and makes his first few passes through the wires, a basic structure has already been established for his evening's work. The early wire editor, Tracy Hill, has made up a national/foreign budget and the senior editors have picked stories for page one.
On this day, the page-one picks are two local stories, a piece from Washington about flood aid for North Carolina and two AP stories on the presidential primaries (Bill Bradley and John McCain are bowing out). There will be no foreign story on page one--unless something big breaks, which isn't likely now, given the lateness (or earliness) of the hour in Europe, Africa and Asia.
Like all wire editors, Kornfeld deals daily with a logistical bias against foreign news. A basic fact of life is, most foreign stories move earlier than most national stories. Another basic fact is, the back pages of the A section have to close earlier than the front pages. Put those facts together and you can see where it leaves foreign news--in the murkiest depths of the section. This bias is built into the infrastructure.
While Hill, who sits about 10 feet to Kornfeld's left, edits the two national stories for page one, plus two related sidebars for an inside jump page, Kornfeld has the rest of the A section to fill. A quick look at the page dummies tells him he has holes for news on nine inside pages. He has maybe 16 columns total, which is about average for a Thursday night. This is pretty good as most papers go, but he'll still have to make some discriminating choices.
Kornfeld is a connoisseur of the wires. The AP is his meat-and-potatoes wire, and because AP stories follow the inverted pyramid they're easier to trim than, say, those of the New York Times. "The only time I can use a New York Times story," he says, "is if I've got a lot of space to devote to it." He likes the writing on the Knight Ridder/Tribune and Los Angeles Times-Washington Post wires, although a disadvantage of Times-Post is that it moves its stories later in the evening. The Scripps Howard News Service sometimes has stories from the West that the others don't have. "I really like having all the different wires," he says. "And sometimes it's amazing the different spin. So I get to pick my own spin."
He has his favorite bylines, too--reporters whose style, judgment or expertise he's come to respect from so many nights of reading their copy. He always looks for the L.A. Times' Rebecca Trounson on a Mideast story, for instance.
By 7:30 p.m., Kornfeld has already filled and moved a couple of back pages. The stories are all foreign news. He doesn't mix national and foreign stories on the same page; each page is labeled either "World" or "Nation." Given the current realities, this is one of the few ways Kornfeld has to give readers some sense of order inside the section.
Hill updates him on a local sidebar to the Mozambique story. It was supposed to be about a Raleigh-based relief group that has been air-dropping rolls and sardines to Mozambicans trapped in trees by the flood waters. But Hill says the sidebar has "busted"--she doesn't say why--so now Kornfeld is flipping through the wires, deciding which Mozambique story to choose and where to put it.
"A lot of times I try to put related things on a page," he says, "but tonight I'm going to have to do something crazy like put Northern Ireland next to Mozambique." He continues flipping through the wire, stops and sighs deeply, then flips some more. Page 10A, which closes at 8:35, is what he's trying to fill now, and it's a tough configuration, a stairstep-shaped editorial space at the top of the page. There's room for three stories, but the heads are going to bump no matter what he does. He sticks a short Bosnia story on the left, puts Mozambique on the right, and separates them with Madagascar. This is not ideal, but what can he do?
Now he's cutting Mozambique to fit. "I'm going to have to whack it pretty hard. I've got 22 inches."
When the page is done he makes photocopies of the dummies and walks them over to the slot and to the page designer. "I like to give a copy of the photo to the designer, too," he says. "I think it helps them do a better job, if they can see what it's really going to look like."
7:40 He's closed six of his nine pages. Five of them--the five farthest back--are the World pages.
He says he's pleased that "there's just about the right amount of news tonight. There's just enough news to fill my section without having to make the really tough choices. I hate that. There's nothing I hate worse than driving home at night and I turn on the radio, CNN news, and I'm saying, 'I missed that. I missed that.' "
A nagging problem for Kornfeld is the paucity of inside color. Tonight he has no color available, which is too bad because there's an AP graphic he'd like to use with a story about how scientists are forecasting sunspot eruptions. In the graphic, an orange sun emits wavy lines of silver radiation, which strike a communications satellite near the earth and damage it. Kornfeld loves the graphic. But he's not sure how it will look if it runs in black and white. Anyway, it's 5-and-a-half inches deep, two columns wide, and there's no hole it would fit. He despairs, and lays the graphic aside.
8:05 "I've got a present for you," says a designer, handing him a new dummy for 15A. The space had been set aside as a page-one runover, but it wasn't needed for that so now Kornfeld gets it. About 30 percent of the page is editorial space, but part of that isn't usable--it's a long sliver across the bottom, just five lines deep; he'll have to house-ad that. A space remains, though, that's two columns wide and 14 inches deep--room enough for a nice story. Room enough, maybe, for the sunspot story and graphic, if he cuts the text.
8:10 Dinner arrives from "Steak Out--Char-Broiled Delivery," a favorite of the newsroom night crew. Kornfeld has brought some steak from home, already cooked, but he ordered out for onions and mushrooms to go with it. He puts his steak in the office microwave and 10 minutes later he's eating at his desk while shuffling through page dummies.
The newsroom has settled into its nighttime rhythm--the scratchy sounds of a police radio, the soft chug of the copy machine, the occasional ringing phone followed by a voice that answers, "Newsroom." Sometimes a conversation breaks out, but mainly people are preoccupied with their own tubes and their own paperwork. It is remarkable how much of journalism consists of people peering silently at a pale blue screen.
8:25 Kornfeld has photocopied the sunspot graphic to get a sense of how it will look in black and white. "It's not great, but it'll have to do," he decides. He asks the night graphics editor to make the switch to black and white and to convert the text to the paper's font style. (In the morning paper, the graphic will be a pale, sad shadow of the full-color original, but it's still good that he got it in. The only other elements of illustration on any of Kornfeld's pages are a small photo of a crashed Russian plane and an even tinier pie graph--the pie itself is smaller than a dime--with a story about working women.)
8:40 He turns to page 7A, working his way forward through the section. This page will be for national news.
"I'm tired of all these shooting stories," he says. Still, he ends up putting two shooting stories, slugged Fireshoot and Rampage, on 7A, turning it into a catch-all mayhem page.
9:00 He is finishing 6A now. He's a few minutes late getting the page to the copy desk, but it's OK because A15 was due at 9:15 and he got that out early.
Sometimes, as the evening unfolds, story selection becomes a matter of instinct. Kornfeld remembers with pleasure a seat-of-the-pants choice he made in December, when authorities stopped a car coming into Washington state from Canada and confiscated high explosives. This was the story that resulted in revelations of an alleged terrorist plot against the United States. "The night that happened," he says, "the only wire that had it was a story from the Seattle Times. AP didn't have it. And I just had one of those hunches. And I ran about an 8-inch story. A day or two later it was on the front page. I really felt good about that."
9:10 He's already moved a Knight Ridder story saying Congress was about to vote on a minimum wage bill. He figured that might stand for the first edition, but now AP has moved an update. He'll have to call the story back. He hopes the rim hasn't put it out yet for the copy editor to read.
"Hey, Denny," he calls, "do you still have Minimum Wage?"
Denny calls back, "No, I got a raise."
A closer look at the AP lead reveals that the House approved an amendment. They'll vote later tonight on the whole bill. He highlights several of the AP paragraphs and moves them into the Knight Ridder story, making sure they fit.
9:30 All of his pages are in. For the first time this evening, he disengages a bit from the news flow. "Now for a hard-earned cigarette," he says. "An old newspaper habit I've held onto." He gets up and heads for a parking deck outside.
When he gets back, he'll immediately have to think about makeovers for the next edition. He'll have another new lead on the minimum wage bill--final passage in the House. He'll redo the world briefs on page 11--Ecuador just adopted the U.S. dollar as its official currency. He'll remove an item about a volcano in the Philippines that seems to have simmered down. And he'll decide to substitute a Chechnya story on page 14 for one about Vladimir Putin's economic program--there's not room for both, and they haven't run Chechnya in a few days.
And he'll watch the wires like a collie watches sheep, until the last deadline expires.
But for now, he's out having his smoke, and I'm inside thinking how much of what we know of the world rests with people like Kornfeld. If newspaper owners give these people the resources they need to make their papers better--the space, the display possibilities, the time to make the smart decisions--we all benefit. If they don't, well, the "news geeks" everywhere will probably keep doing their best with what they've got. It seems to be in their blood.