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From AJR,   October 1999  issue

Journalists Working Like Itís 1999   

By Natalie Pompilio
Natalie Pompilio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.     

In July, CNN's "Travel Now" featured some of the hottest--and coolest--ways to ring in 2000. Among the options: scuba diving in Fiji, one of the first places to greet the new year, dog sledding in Antarctica, and cruising on a ship straddling the International Dateline.

And where will the fine journalists who compiled CNN's report be spending their momentous New Year's Eve?

Working, of course.

"We're a global network, and we'll be all over the world," says Earl Casey, a CNN spokesman, of his network's holiday plans. "Normally, our coverage at this time of year is modest to moderate. This year it's going to be intense and robust."

While people worldwide make their wild and sometimes wacky New Year's Eve plans, many journalists are preparing to welcome 2000 behind a computer or in front of a camera, watching other people celebrate or witnessing the world as it falls apart. It doesn't matter if the journalists on the job personally believe the new millennium begins this year or with the dawning of 2001. The possibility for Y2K problems and the superstition that those big, round zeros in 2000 foretell doom guarantee massive coverage of the celebration.

CNN plans 100 hours of all-encompassing coverage, starting at 5 a.m. New Year's Eve Eastern time and continuing until the New York stock market opens four days later, Casey says. The network plans to touch on all aspects of the changeover: the societal phenomena, the religious and cultural aspects, and, of course, the potential for meltdown if there's a computer catastrophe.

"Our staffing levels will approach any major news story you can name during the calendar year and the upcoming year," Casey says.

For those interested in preserving a bit of history, CNN also plans to run a 10-part series titled, appropriately, "Millennium." Beginning in October, hourly installments will present a view of history from the year 1000 to today. CNN officials imagine videotapes of the series joining preserved newspapers and magazines in millennium keepsake boxes.

At the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Managing Editor David Bailey says the Little Rock-based daily will extend its deadlines past midnight and warn readers to expect late delivery on January 1. The paper is also preparing contingency plans in case its presses lose power, Bailey adds.

Thus far, he says, there haven't been any signs of revolt from members of the news staff who will be working on the holiday.

"We're all news junkies. As much as they'd like to party like it's 1999, they don't want to miss a good story, either," says Bailey, who stresses that the millennium starts in 2001 by his count. "I think most people want to take a shot at this. That's why they're in the newspaper business."

Ken Ericson, news director for WDSU, the NBC affiliate in New Orleans, says he told his 60-member staff to be ready to work on December 31. "I think people understand what the evening is, and what it means and our responsibility," Ericson says. The amount of coverage the station will divide between the city's revelry and the possibility of disaster remains up in the air. Although WDSU won't wait until the 11th hour to plan its coverage, that 11th hour will help guide decision-making since what happens on the East Coast at the stroke of midnight will give Central Standard Timers a chance to react, Ericson says.

Some TV stations have even more challenges ahead. Peter Brown, news director for Boston's WBZ, says the CBS affiliate is also the media sponsor of "First Night," the city's official New Year's celebration. "We want to be Boston's entertainment and information station on New Year's Eve," Brown says.

In January, Brown told his staff to expect to work on the big day. "If people really had their choice to be with their families or to chase Y2K issues, I think they'd rather be with their families, but I think they understand their responsibility," Brown says.

In the beginning of 1999, editors at Alabama's Birmingham News banned all end-of-the-year vacations, Managing Editor Carol Nunnelley says. As the year progressed, "we thought that was a little extreme, so we loosened it a bit. But we haven't granted as many holiday/time-off periods as usual." Actual staffing and deadlines for New Year's Eve are still undecided, she says, as the paper watches to see how the state addresses its very real Y2K concerns.

Of some comfort to the working stiffs may be that the New Year's Eve workload stretches up the editorial ladder. A group of Nunnelley's longtime friends are hitting the beach on New Year's Eve. "I really, really hate to miss that, but I suppose I will," she says. "I'll probably be working."

A special front page is likely at the News, with the goal being to put out an issue that combines breaking news with a keepsake quality. "If the world comes to an end," Nunnelley says, "we'll do our best to cover it before we're swept away."