When No Time Is Right

In the news world timing is everything.

A story about Michele Bachmann would have little resonance nationally right now, but 500 words on Tulsa, Oklahoma, race relations would fit on most front pages. News has to be new; if it isn’t the latter it isn’t the former. It’s basically the definition of the industry.

Sometimes in the media world, however, timing hurts more than it helps. A few weeks ago I saw a trailer for a movie called Neighborhood Watch about, well, a team of neighborhood watchers. It was a comedy, its schtick was these guys thought they were tough but really weren’t. It probably seemed like a good idea before 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot by a man serving on the neighborhood watch. All the sudden being “timely” was no asset.

That’s what happened today at the Conway Daily Sun. Last week there was a police training exercise where officers from several departments went through scenarios built on actual events to hone their skills. We sent a reporter and a photographer, thinking the training would make a neat feature. In one scenario an officer wound up getting shot because of circumstances and some decisions the officer made. It seemed like the quintessential incident to build a story around. The officer hopefully learned the lesson, and it makes for a intriguing slice of life piece on people in uniform.

That story was slated to run tomorrow. Then last night a man shot five policemen in Greenland, N.H. One of them, a police chief from a small town with two weeks until he retired, died. All the sudden the interesting slice of life story took on a much sharper edge. I went into work with the thought we would kill the story, at least in the short term, out of respect and to give people some time to process what had happened. A week, I thought, would be fine, but a day was not enough.

I got overruled on that thought, and we modified the story to reflect the incident. There were also a host of concurrent stories that highlighted local connections with the victim. The timing, in some ways, couldn’t be better. In other ways it couldn’t be worse.

I’m not sure how to best deliver horrible news. Today my story ran on the small child who was beaten and raped in Albany, N.H. When is a good time to read that? As a newspaper reporter I have a duty to inform, but at the same time I want to be sensitive to my readers’ stomachs. That doesn’t always happen.

I talk to the police weekly, sometimes even daily. But today I didn’t want to call. I drove to the courthouse and noticed the flag in front of the police station flying at half-staff. The fraternity is mourning the loss of one of their own. It didn’t seem to me to be the time to be prying.

But that’s the job. Luckily it wasn’t my story, because on the heels of last week’s piece I wasn’t in the mood. I very much enjoy catching wasteful spending or pressing politicians about policy issues, but beaten children and dead police officers are not my thing. The problem with a newsroom, unlike other jobs, is that story you heard around the watercooler is the one we have to delve into. Whether it’s amazing or grim, we get immersed in it. Wherever I went today people had two questions: How did that happen to that poor child? And can you believe what happened to the poor police officer?

The bad news comes. Sometimes there is no way to time it. Sometimes it seems to come in waves. I haven’t even mentioned the triple shooting in Dalton, N.H., about an hour from Conway. Two dead in that one. How are we supposed to time this news? I’m not sure there is a way to.

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