Talk Story


Thursday, December 5, 2002

A career in newspapers
is a late-night calling

MY HOME phone rang last night at 10 minutes to 10. The caller wanted to know was I the one who wrote the article in the newspaper about cell phones because, if I wasn't, should he call the other John Flanagan in the telephone book?

It took a while to communicate that yes, I'm the John Flanagan who writes for the newspaper, but no, I didn't write anything about cell phones.

"Oh, I should call the other John Flanagan, then?" he asked.

"No!" I said. "He doesn't write for the newspaper. I'm the one who writes for the newspaper, but not that article." (You owe me one, Jack Flanagan.)

In a tone that implied he had a lot to say on the subject regardless, the man proceeded to share his cell phone opinions with me until I interrupted, "Excuse me, sir. I didn't write the article about cell phones, and I really don't care about them."

"Oh," he said. "Goodbye."

IN MY 32 years in the newspaper business, I'm thankful that relatively few readers actually called me late at night. In this business, a phone call while most people are sleeping is never good news.

In the 1970s, when I was a news photographer in Delaware, it meant there had been a horrible accident on the highway, a bad fire or a plane crash. Later, it meant somebody on the afternoon copy desk had called in sick, and could I fill in? Copy editors on the p.m. desk started work at 4 a.m.

During my last 18 years as an editor, the overnight calls came in two types. The first were the broken press/computer crash/ power outage calls describing some major publication-threatening breakdown that would require quick decision-making. The second were the big news stories: the Panama invasion, a tornado, Three Mile Island, a flash flood, 9/11.

I won't miss those late-night calls.

I will miss the people, including those eccentrics and slackers who became incredibly competent when it mattered. I'll remember the wonderful stories, the fire-from-the-hip decision-making, the bad coffee and the adrenaline rush of meeting a deadline on a really big story, the smell of newsprint fresh from the press, ink still damp.

There were the lessons: All emphasis is no emphasis. Keep it simple, stupid. Always check the spelling.

Ron Howard directed a movie called "The Paper" a few years ago. A review summed it up: "The rush to report and publish a story about a double homicide with racial overtones propels us through 24 hours of the life of the New York Sun and its scrappy assistant managing editor (who is) being courted by some other, arrogant newspaper, dueling with an avaricious managing editor and keeping his very pregnant reporter-wife waiting."

For many of us, that describes just another day at the office.

Of course, the further you get from the newsroom, the fewer the opportunities to charge your psychic batteries with the electricity of committing journalism on the fly. Planning, negotiating, worrying about wire-service contracts, coin racks, benefit plans, libel suits and telephone bills aren't the stuff of motion pictures. There's no Pulitzer for budget cuts.

Eventually, the time comes to move on.

SO THIS is my last newspaper column -- at least for the time being. I'm packing up my pica pole, proportion wheel and stylebook and changing careers.

In a week or so, I'll become executive director of Hawaii Community Services Council, a nonprofit outfit that provides training, advocacy, project management and support services for Hawaii health and social service organizations.

HCSC traces its history to 1899, when shippers agreed to contribute 10 cents per ton to a public health fund in response to an outbreak of bubonic plague in Honolulu.

Now, that was a story worth a late-night phone call!

John Flanagan is the Star-Bulletin's contributing editor.
He can be reached at:

E-mail to Editorial Editor

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