One of the best things about being a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald was that we were always on deadline.
Even before digital publishing gave constant deadlines to all journalists, the World-Herald had a never-ending succession of deadlines for our evening edition and four morning editions. Whenever news broke, we were always scrambling to get our best story into the next edition.
When I posted some lessons last year from my decade at the World-Herald, I double-checked to see if it still was publishing the evening edition, because that seemed kind of unlikely. It was, but Publisher Terry Kroeger announced Monday that the evening edition would end March 7.
I can’t let the announcement pass without some fond memories of the “all-day” World-Herald, other afternoon newspapers in my past and the place of afternoon newspapers in the past and future of the newspaper business.
The all-day World-Herald
I joined the World-Herald in 1993, a little leery of the fact that it still had an evening edition. The deaths of afternoon newspapers in Des Moines in 1982 and Kansas City in 1990 had caused considerable disruption in my journalism career. And in 1992, I had overseen the newsroom aspects of a switch from afternoon to morning publication as editor of the Minot Daily News. While the World-Herald didn’t maintain separate news staffs (as Des Moines and Kansas City had done), it did have two shifts of editors and two production and circulation shifts. This seemed to me another disruption waiting to happen.
But I was assured (and I remember seeing the figures for years, though I don’t have any of them) that the evening edition had stronger circulation and advertising in Omaha. The World-Herald delivered its morning editions statewide in Nebraska and across much of western Iowa, and that gave the morning paper higher total circulation, but in metro Omaha, the evening edition was king.
Mimi preferred the evening paper. She’s not a morning person, and she awoke in time to get ready for work, not leaving time for even a glance at the morning paper. She would sit down and enjoy the paper after work, and having a more timely product certainly enhanced that experience.
With lots of exceptions, generally enterprise or evergreen stories with a strong metro interest went into the evening paper, stories of regional interest went into the morning paper, coverage of evening meetings and events went into the morning paper and breaking news went into the next edition, whichever it was, with updates for subsequent editions.
I don’t remember the deadlines exactly, but whatever they were, you could push them for big news. Most of the daily news in the evening edition (which we called the “metro,” the morning metro edition was the “sunrise”) happened by about 10 or 10:30. But if you hustled (and we always did), you could get news that broke as late as 11:30 or noon into the metro.
More than once, I remember tailoring a story five different ways. If I got a national report in the morning with state and local figures, I’d go with five different versions:
- A quick summary of the Omaha-area numbers for the evening paper.
- Statewide Nebraska numbers and reaction for the “bulldog” edition that circulated into central and western Nebraska.
- Iowa numbers and reaction for the Iowa edition, which covered and was delivered in something like 20 or 30 counties in western Iowa, especially southwest Iowa.
- Lincoln numbers as well as statewide numbers for the edition which circulated in eastern Nebraska, (I seem to remember we sometimes called it the “Link,” a reference to the capital, not to html).
- Analysis and metro reaction for the sunrise edition.
It was a great experience in integrating your writing with your reporting and tailoring your story to a particular audience. And hustling. The routine for this story would be to read the report quickly, find the metro angle and bang out 6-10 paragraphs for the metro, then start calling Iowa, Nebraska and metro experts for their reactions and analysis. Then I’d write a Nebraska version for the bulldog, an Iowa version for the Iowa, and tweak (or sometimes substantially rewrite) the Nebraska version for the Link and Sunrise editions.
Though the final three deadlines were late in the evening, I’d usually start at 8:30 or 9 in the morning and be ready to leave by 5 or 5:30. After a career mostly working for morning newspapers, the all-day World-Herald gave me reasonable hours for the first time in my career (if I could hustle and finish all those versions of my stories). I ate a lot of dinners with the family, which didn’t often happen in Des Moines or Kansas City (or Minot after we converted to morning publication). But for a big, breaking story, I’d start early in the morning and work late at night, constantly updating.
Two stories stand out as examples of how the deadlines resulted in better coverage (and the challenges and opportunities the all-day paper presented): 9/11 and a deadly bank robbery.
I walked into the newsroom about 7:45 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, seeing several people clustered around a television by the editors’ desks. I asked what was going on. They said an airplane, a commercial jet, had crashed into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Sounded like a big story, mostly a national story, but probably with strong local angles: Nebraskans or Iowans on the plane, former Nebraskans or Iowans working in the building, tourists from our region who witnessed, etc.
My job was national correspondent, meaning I had to find the local angles on such stories, so I knew right away that it was going to be a long day. Before I could start searching our library for stories about locals working in the World Trade Center, an editor came by telling me that another plane had hit the second tower. We knew right away that the nation was under attack, and that we were working the biggest story of our lives.
As morning newspaper newsrooms around the country decided whether to do extra editions, and scrambled to get production crews and circulation hawkers lined up for the extras, the World-Herald newsroom simply started working on our p.m. edition. Of course, we’d print thousands more for vending machines around downtown in the early afternoon, but mostly the edition would go to tens of thousands of homes around Omaha who got the paper every evening anyway.
I can’t recall where I learned of the first of three stories I wrote that day, but some editor told me that former Nebraska football star Dave Rimington was home in the state for the previous Saturday’s game against Notre Dame and for some honors later in the week in Omaha. Rimington, who was a Cincinnati Bengals teammate with Boomer Esiason, worked for Esiason’s foundation, on the 101st floor of One World Trade Center. I quickly reached Rimington at his mother’s home in Plattsmouth, Neb., and quickly wrote a story on his shock at what had happened at his normal workplace and his concern about co-workers who might have been there. I probably finished that story by 9:30 or so. It didn’t make the evening edition, because editors were scrambling to get as much wire copy from New York as possible into the evening edition. The Rimington story would make the morning editions, with this lead:
Dave Rimington watched in horror from his mother’s home in Nebraska as the World Trade Center tower where he normally works collapsed after Tuesday morning’s terrorist attack.
My big role for the evening paper was to play “rewrite.” I would put together the local impact/reaction story from my own reporting and contributions by a dozen or more colleagues, feeding in reaction from around town: Omaha’s tallest building, 28 stories tall, closing for the day (a decision that seems almost comical in retrospect but made sense in the panic of that day), Eppley Airfield closing down, Offutt Air Force Base going on high alert (President Bush would fly there later in the day).
As I waited for feeds from my colleagues, I crafted my opening two paragraphs, so I could update the body of the story right up to deadline:
Although Tuesday morning’s attack struck more than a thousand miles away, the terror struck close to home in Nebraska and Iowa.
Air travelers changed plans. Military forces and police scrambled to their highest alert levels. Schoolchildren stayed in from recess and asked if the country was at war. Office workers clustered around television sets, sickened at the sights of carnage. Families with loved ones back east waited anxiously for the telephone to beep. Worshipers gathered to pray for a world gone mad.
The next 31 paragraphs came mostly from colleagues, capturing the fear and chaos of the day. By noon or so, the p.m. edition was on the press and the editors started planning the morning edition. My assignment: Examine airport security and discuss how difficult or easy it would be to get a weapon onto a plane. I spent the afternoon finding and talking to airport security experts and found a copy of a General Accounting Office executive’s testimony to Congress in 2000. By time for the bulldog edition, I had written my third story of the day, with this lead:
Federal investigators warned Congress last year that the nation’s air travel system was vulnerable to a terrorist attack.
9/11 was a horrible day for journalists, as for everyone in the country, but at the World-Herald, we just scrambled non-stop at covering the biggest story of our careers. Though we were already into the digital age, print still ruled back then, and that was the best possible print-focused way to cover this story from the Midwest.
Norfolk bank robbery
Just over a year later, I led a team of World-Herald reporters covering a bank robbery in which five people were killed in Norfolk, Neb. The robbers escaped for several hours, so the story unfolded over the first 24 hours or so as multiple stories:
- Robbery: What happened in the bank and who was killed.
- Manhunt: Where and how authorities were searching for the robbers.
- Capture: How the suspects were arrested, who they were, their return to Norfolk.
- Bond hearing: The morning after their arrest, the suspects appeared in court.
Now you’d cover that as a digital story, constantly updating a liveblog and breaking off a print story as a deadline approached. But then we were constantly filing new print stories. As soon as we learned about the Thursday morning robbery and murders, I headed to Norfolk, about a two-hour drive, along with some other reporters and photojournalists. Someone in the office worked the phones to do a story for the metro.
The team in the field collaborated on a story for the bulldog that focused on the robbery, murders and manhunt. Late in the afternoon, we learned three suspects had been arrested in O’Neill, about 75 miles away. I don’t recall which details we got for which editions, but by the Sunrise, we had three men charged with five counts each of first-degree murder and in the Madison County Jail, with police still searching for a fourth man.
I was in the courtroom the next morning for the bond hearing. A police officer testified about what the security cameras in the bank showed. I remember a collective gasp in the courtroom when he testified that the robbers were in the bank for just 40 seconds. The bond hearing ended just on deadline for the metro. I called my editor and dictated a quick just-the-facts story with a pretty straight-forward lead:
Four men were ordered held without bail Friday after a Norfolk police officer told how they robbed a bank and killed five people Thursday.
The morning hearing and other developments would be all over TV, radio and the Internet all day (online news was barely in its adolescence then, especially in Nebraska, but was already becoming a factor). I needed more than just the facts for the morning paper (though even then it puzzled me how often newspaper journalists wrote just-the-facts leads and stories about events that would be 18-20 hours old by the time people read them the next morning).
I remembered the buzz in the courtroom when the officer testified how briefly the robbers were in the bank and came up with a storytelling approach that was much stronger than my p.m. lead (but the straight lead was probably more appropriate for the evening paper):
Forty seconds, five lives.
Three gunmen collected their death toll swiftly Thursday morning in the U.S. Bank branch office in Norfolk. They left the bank 40 seconds after entering, leaving behind five victims, each shot in the head at close range, Norfolk Police Capt. Steve Hecker testified in a court hearing Friday.
My 10 years working at the World-Herald (in two different hitches, 1993-8 and 2000-5) prepared me well for the urgency of covering news for digital platforms. In both situations, you need to verify news quickly and report what you’ve nailed down, updating as you get more information.
I worked at better newspapers than the World-Herald in Des Moines and Kansas City. But the biggest World-Herald advantage over those newspapers was in deadline news coverage. My colleagues in Des Moines and Kansas City thought they were good at breaking news, and they were, but our all-day deadlines helped the World-Herald excel on deadline better than bigger and more-talented staffs in Des Moines and Kansas City.
Des Moines and Kansas City evening papers
In both Des Moines and Kansas City, I worked for the morning newspaper. In both cases, the morning newspaper had a bigger, better staff, covering a wider geographic territory. The Des Moines Register not only covered the full state of Iowa, but delivered newspapers in every town in the state (and published our “mail” edition in time to be delivered the next morning on rural routes). The Kansas City Times delivered in parts of rural Kansas and Missouri, but covered both states and much more of the Midwest.
In both situations, the p.m. staff was feisty and competitive, delighted when it beat the arrogant morning staff on a story. It made for fun journalism, but it was a wasteful way to run a business.
In Des Moines, I supervised our statehouse coverage the first several months of 1982, the Tribune’s final year. Our three-person team (David Yepsen, Diane Graham and Chuck Bullard) usually beat the two-person team of the Tribune, Tom Witosky and Dewey Knudson, (though I’m sure Tom and Dewey to this day could recall their occasional victories). But how much better could we have been with all five of those excellent reporters working together, concentrating more firepower on investigative work rather than duplicating so much effort on daily coverage?
In Kansas City in 1987, three years before the final afternoon edition, a major developer got into severe financial trouble, threatening many area projects and triggering criminal investigations. Each newspaper put three of its best reporters on the story. I edited the Times team of Paul Wenske, Dave Hayes and Charlie Crumpley. Because Times and Star circulation overlapped almost identically (a result of a bizarre circulation system I’ve recounted before), both papers had a hard-and-fast rule that we couldn’t run a story that simply duplicated the other paper. The Star had the Sunday paper, but the Times put out a large Sunday-sized paper on Saturday, stuffed with auto and real estate ads and featuring our best enterprise stories.
Three weekends in a row while working on the developer story, we could see the Star’s team across the newsroom Friday evening, cranking out their best findings on the story for Sunday, while we pulled our best investigative story together for Saturday. Three weekends in a row, we blew them completely out of the water. Whatever they had for Sunday didn’t substantially differ from our Saturday story, so the Sunday Star had nothing on the biggest story of the week. It was a great competitive triumph for the Times, but a huge waste of resources for the company.
I wonder how much longer Des Moines and Kansas City could have served readers interested in an evening newspaper, if we’d just had the sense to combine our editing and reporting resources the way Omaha did. Maybe not long. As Kroeger boasted in his letter to World-Herald readers and in the video above, the World-Herald has been unique for years with its all-day paper. It may have been unique when I arrived in 1993.
Though the duplication was undeniable, I also wondered whether competition made us better in Des Moines and Kansas City, because, with the deadline exception, those staffs were clearly a cut above the World-Herald’s.
The Evening Sentinel
My first professional bylines came in the Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah, Iowa. From today’s digital perspective, my job then seems ridiculous. I would go to a football game Friday night in the fall (or to two basketball games, one boys and one girls, on Friday nights in the winter, or to a track meet in the spring). Then Saturday morning I would call the coaches of teams whose games I didn’t see and write up stories about all the Corner Conference action for Monday evening’s paper. Even then, that probably wasn’t a good idea. We published daily five evenings a week, with no paper Saturday or Sunday. But we wrote up the Friday evening sports results for Monday evening’s paper, three days later, as though KMA Radio and word of mouth wouldn’t make the Friday games old news by Monday even back then.
But it mattered to be in the local paper. The 10 tiny communities with schools of the Corner Conference had only weekly papers, if any, and people were always glad to see the Sentinel at their games. I was a mini-celebrity (a high school girl actually asked her older sister to ask for my autograph, and I don’t think it was a joke), recognized much more by name than I would be later when my byline ran in much bigger newspapers, but not on anything as important to community life as high school sports.
Many years later, in my first year at the World-Herald, I wrote a story about Shenandoah being probably the smallest community in the country with a newspaper war, when the upstart Valley News Today challenged the Sentinel, giving a town of about 5,000 people two daily newspapers. Now the Sentinel is gone and the Valley News is a weekly.
Minot Daily News
When I became editor in Minot in 1991, it was an absurd situation: an evening newspaper with very little opportunity to publish any news of the day. Because we circulated throughout the northwest quadrant of North Dakota, delivering in towns two-plus hours away, we needed a news deadline of about 9:30 a.m., especially in the winter, when trucks needed more time to get the paper to the rural areas.
We got a few overnight police stories in the evening paper (not that Minot had a lot of those) and some weather stories (OK, we had plenty of weather, but you’d like more recent weather than 9:30 in your evening paper). But lots of the news in the paper was about sporting events or government meetings from the previous evening.
I don’t think I’d have taken the job if the publisher wasn’t planning on a conversion to morning publication. That situation was just wrong for an evening paper. The change in working hours was significant for some editors, but a lot of the reporters worked nights anyway, covering the meetings and games and writing their stories for the next evening’s paper. Morning publication just meant their stories were fresher for the readers.
Unlike in Shenandoah, we were a seven-day paper, publishing in the morning Saturday and Sunday. So the staff put out two papers on Friday, starting on the Saturday morning paper as soon as we finished the Friday evening edition.
On our last Thursday edition, we actually got news of the day into the evening paper, big enough news that I actually got to yell, “Stop the presses!” (You have the yell it; the press is pretty loud.) When Democrat Kent Conrad had run for his first term in the U.S. Senate in 1986, term limits were a big deal and Conrad had promised to serve only one term, a stupid promise, but what politician doesn’t make stupid promises when running for office? No one, Republican or Democrat, expected him to keep his promise, when 1992 rolled around, and he was popular enough and the Republican prospects were weak enough, that he’d have been re-elected easily.
But that Thursday morning in March 1992, Conrad surprised the state by announcing he wouldn’t run for re-election. I got to yell “stop the presses!” and my staff scrambled together a quick news story about Conrad’s decision and the impact it might have on the race. (Actually, Conrad got to keep his promise and get re-elected to the Senate. Not long after his announcement, longtime Democratic Sen. Quentin Burdick died. So Democratic Rep. Byron Dorgan ran for Conrad’s seat and Conrad ran for the remaining two years of Burdick’s term.)
Thoughts on evening newspapers
Newspapers were in decline early in my career, before facing the challenge of digital media. The p.m. newspapers in Des Moines and Kansas City (and lots of other morning and afternoon papers in lots of other cities) died in the early pre-Web days of digital news.
In the video at the top of this post, Kroeger says in recent years, the World-Herald newsroom hasn’t been distinguishing the morning and evening metro editions as much as it did in my day. That news that breaks during the morning makes it into the evening edition, but digital products are where people turn for the news that breaks during the day. (In my time, the World-Herald was stubbornly slow in embracing digital news.)
When newspapers were killing off evening editions in the first couple decades of my career, I wondered whether they were killing the right papers. Distribution, especially in metro areas, was easier in the early morning hours before traffic got heavy. And the morning paper was a deeply engrained habit with many readers. But most people have more time to read in the evening. Many editors and reporters (including this one) wrote and edited stories that people could read better putting their feet up at the end of a long day, rather than reading quickly over a cup of coffee before heading to work. Kind of like this blog post.
In recent years, as newspapers have declined further in the face of digital competition, I’ve wondered if an evening newspaper would be a more attractive print product for consumers: A summary of today’s news instead of yesterday’s.
I’m not suggesting that the World-Herald is making a mistake in eliminating its evening product. If it’s still selling papers around Nebraska and Iowa, and selling ads based on that audience, it needs its morning product, and it’s probably time to end the all-day paper even if that’s a difficult decision emotionally (as Kroeger acknowledged).
And in a time when newspapers have done such a horrible job of developing digital products and digital revenue streams, I’m hesitant to suggest spending the kind of money and effort changing a print product that I remember spending in Minot when we converted from evening to morning publication. I never suggested it when I was at Digital First Media, and I don’t think such a print experiment would have been wise, given the digital strategy the company was pursuing at the time.
But, if I were leading a media company with strong print interests now, I might be encouraging consideration of an evening print experiment. It’s not going to be right for everyone: For newspapers that cover wide geographical areas such as we did in Minot, or for newspapers that have outsourced their printing to distant printers that could not get a timely evening edition to local homes. If you’ve outsourced distribution, a shift from morning to evening publication also could result in the kind of distribution crisis the Boston Globe is facing, just shifting its morning distribution from one vendor to another. Some metro areas might be too large, with too much traffic, to make an evening edition work.
But I think evening distribution could revive interest in some local newspapers, especially if the content is a lively mix of the day’s news and some local watchdog and feature reporting. In fact, I think the Des Moines Register could be an intriguing possibility for such an experiment. I don’t know whether it still handles its own distribution, but it started using a new press in the Des Moines suburbs in 2000 during my second hitch there. Gannett long since abandoned statewide coverage and circulation, and the Register is really just a metro newspaper now. Even when the nation turns its attention to the Iowa caucuses, the Register commands a smaller piece of the spotlight every four years.
I’d be fascinated to see the Register try an evening-newspaper experiment more than 30 years after the death of the Tribune. I think a paper that built its national reputation with statewide coverage and circulation would be a perfect place to experiment with a new model for metro success.
Maybe newspapers can’t survive much longer in the digital age. Or maybe the key to a successful future that includes print lies in stronger enterprise reporting, development of some niche products or some business strategy that hasn’t been found yet. Maybe success in digital revenue will someday subsidize a print product maintained out of nostalgia.
But in some communities, I think an evening edition with a mix of content that includes today’s news could be part of a strategy to extend the life and value of the newspaper.