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What happens on a day the Big Story drops?

As UK PM Johnson quits, is it all panic in newsrooms at home and abroad? Quite the opposite says newsroom veteran Robert Corbidge, who describes the controlled detonation of journalistic energy when a global story breaks.

by  Rob Corbidge
15:42, 07 July 2022
News breaks at speed

Downing Street, London, 12.30pm, today. 

Boris Johnson strides out from the Prime Minister's office, to deliver a six-minute farewell of sorts to millions of watching viewers - more than 1m on the relevant BBC website page alone - and fires the starting gun on a mass panic in newsrooms around the country and beyond.

Or does he?

A good news machine hums and whirrs on days such as today. It was the task a good machine was built for, and only on days so packed with developments commanding rapt attention does it truly run at its full potential - potential that is the sum of its people and processes.

To never fear a Big News Day is something competent news editors learn early in their career. The Big News Day is a wild ride of information flow at the maximum, an amazing cerebral and system challenge both at the same time. The bigger challenge is that of the No News Day, a far more troublesome creature. 

If you're staffing the newsroom, you've likely been doing some prep reading and messaging on your way in. If you've been working consecutive days, then on a week like this even if you leave the office you certainly didn't leave the story.

While remote working may have diluted its intensity, plenty of newsrooms will have been the classic scene of journalists stood around a TV or monitor, some taking notes as Johnson spoke and adding colour gleaned from the TV images: the PM's wife was or was not dabbing her eyes, there were jeers or cheers from crowds beyond the barriers at Downing Street, that sort of thing. 

(Just a few minutes before the key speech, the musical equivalent of a custard pie gag - the Benny Hill TV Show theme tune - could be heard playing distantly over the microphones of the very sombre reporters stood in Downing Street. I wonder if whoever played the slapstick audio  realised they missed going down properly in history in a light-hearted way had they played it just a few minutes later as the speech was being delivered.)

There most likely will have been some burst in activity as he actually confirmed he was stepping down ("Clock check!"), and then another as soon as he propelled himself back into No10. Actual events. Covered as they happen. This is what you live for in a newsroom.

There was in fact enough likelihood of the PM stepping down that plans will have been made all this week. A broad brush idea of what is required will have come down from the top, maybe with some specific requests or details. 

News organisations are still defined by those at the top. I have worked for editors who lived and breathed politics and regarded the Sports Editor as from another dimension. And I've worked for editors who regarded politics more as an outsize slice of what they wanted to offer. In a situation such as this week, I'd rather have the former: it's more fun professionally.

With your mental wireframe of what is required, you should also be confident that other department heads like design, images, video, comment and more will flag up any changes in direction, plans, or refinements. 

Sometimes they warn of some bat-crazy conceptual content idea coming down from the top - perhaps a particular treatment of an image for the cover to make sense of a strong or smart headline. (We would lay a very small wager that one of tomorrow's UK tabloid front covers will somehow manage to Photoshop Johnson and an animal together somehow.) And if it does, you will enact it, because that's your job. If you are facing this right now, you have our sympathies.

Mostly, against this background, you will be editing content prior to publication. On a day such as this, you may read thousands upon thousands of words, all the time cutting, adding, splicing, shaping until the flow is right or the explainer is concise, or whatever is needed to bring the content to the published page. 

You'll likely be watching a flow of your own news feeds - your reporters won't have time to do that - and dealing with a barrage of internal messaging and direct comms. 

Some of this will be fraught, and all in some way hectic - but it will all be focused. At its best a news operation is an orchestra, a little discordant in its component parts but in unity a true force, and as news editor you are the one keeping time. 

It is not always a popular job. You must constantly harry and hurry your people to complete their pieces and push it through to the next part of the process; you must interrogate their knowledge of the story using all your experience, and crucially, you need a great understanding of the broader picture. To the reporter, their story should be the most important in the world; as a news editor you've got a lot of worlds to consider.

You will likely mediate arguments among your own people and departments: it's a big day, and everyone wants a piece. These days, you'll have some misinformation to filter out - all while dreading that it could be true. 

Something will come in that's not what was promised - or maybe you didn't explain the requirement properly. Or maybe chose the wrong reporter. It doesn't matter, you're on the clock and the content must come out. Ever done a rewrite of 600 words in five minutes?

"Have you re-nosed the analysis to main write?"

"Boss wants the whole thing re-shot. Needs a better sense of the rift with the party."

"Drop it! That follow-up has been binned - should have never done the story to start with."

Days like these pass in an intense, remarkable blur.  

Walking away from my first true testing day on the desk with my boss for a deserved post-match pint, we discussed the details of the past 10-hour shift. By turns hilarious and horrific, with some skin-of-the-teeth moments and a few I-Told-You-So t-shirts being worn, he said: "You know the best part?"

"We get do it all again tomorrow."

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