Monthly Archives: May 2011

Stop the Presses: Klan Leader Forces Runoff

In the days when a newspaper company kept the pressroom and the newsroom in the same building, the starts and stops of the presses set the rhythm of the late shift. Between editions, or if pressmen had to sort out a paper jam, we could feel the quiet. The constant vibration stilled, the steady hum went silent. At three different papers where I worked as an editor (Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Chicago Sun-Times, New York Times), the action of the presses downstairs from the newsroom dominated each evening. 

The Times no longer runs a factory near Times Square. A modern press building in Queens prints the local edition. The Sun-Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post and many other papers have also separated the industrial work and the journalism, putting new pressrooms closer to highways and away from city centers.

A ring of a phone, an electronic text message, a glowing monitor — these beeps and flashes set the staccato beat of the new newsroom. What has not changed is the power of one blunt phrase: "Stop the presses."

Sunday night, as reporters learned that American forces had killed Osama bin Laden, editors said those three words. A Times staff memo described that moment and a similar event from the 1960's:

 “‘Stop the presses.’ When Dave Geary of the News Desk made that request on Sunday night because the death of Osama bin Laden, he became only the third person in the last 43 years who is confirmed to have stopped the presses. Al Siegal, who came to the paper in 1960 before retiring in 2006, reports on the only instance he can recall: ‘On the night of Sunday, March 31, 1968, the first edition had begun to roll with the prepared text of Lyndon Johnson’s speech about the Tet offensive and the Vietnam War. When he went on the air, we followed along in the text. At the end of the speech, he announced that he was withdrawing as a candidate for president. Larry Hauck phoned the pressroom and used exactly those words.’ 

Hat tip to Mike Allen of Politico.com, who quoted the memo in his morning Playbook email (about four or five screens down).

This was not mentioned in the memo, but I can remember one Saturday night in 1991 when I called the pressroom with the same command. David Duke, a modern Klan leader, was running for governor of Louisiana and he forced a runoff with a former governor, Edwin Edwards. The election, as is standard for Louisiana, was on a Saturday. Sunday papers were on the presses, which were rolling. Rather than wait for a the pressmen to replate during a regular press stop, which we did for most news updates, I called the pressroom and said, "stop the presses." I was doing a regular rotation as head of the news desk, a Saturday night duty that was shared by a small group of editors.

Roberto Suro reported from Louisiana. I can find his front-page article from the Monday paper (Louisiana Puts Ex-Klan Leader In Runoff Race). The "stop the presses" news I remember that ran in the Sunday paper does not seem to exist in the public electronic archive.

The TImes memo asks for more memories, a reporting technique we now call "crowd sourcing":

Other news events might have triggered the request, including the death of popes, the murder of John Lennon and some embarrassing prose that might have slipped through. But memories fade quickly and confirmation is impossible. So for the moment, Dave, John and Larry comprise a very select club. Any memories, faded or not, are welcome.

From my spot in the crowd of TImes veterans, this is my memory. I'll be happy to have any updates. Roberto? Research librarians?

 

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