Sunday, July 19, 2009

Where were you when. . . ?

"Where were you when . . . ?" This is the question posed by editor-in-chief of The London Free Press, Paul Berton, in his Saturday column. Maybe I could be so bold as to answer his question with a warning, equally original: "Be careful what you wish for . . ." or in this case, "what you ask for."

Berton asks the expected: "Where were you when you heard President Kennedy had been shot?" Where was I? I was between classes in high school, waiting to enter Mr. Allen's French class. The exiting students whispered the news to us. Some of the young girls were sobbing as they left Mr. Allen's room and all the young boys were stone faced. Some were wet-eyed.

My wife was in her high school cafeteria. Her high school principal announced the event over the school's PA system. She recalls the boys sat quietly numbed while the girls cried openly.

Paul goes on to ask: "Do people still find out about big breaking stories from newspapers, the way they probably did about the attack on Pearl Harbour, the bombing of Hiroshima, or even the assassination of JFK?"

This is my answer: Ever since the first historic radio signals crossed the Atlantic early in the last century newspapers have been losing ground. They were rarely, if ever, first out of the gate with the big story.

The assassination of JFK was a radio and television story. And after they broke the shocking story, word of mouth quickly made all the world aware. When JFK was shot in mid-day in Dallas Texas most newspaper presses were sitting idle, the press rooms empty. Newspapers were not slow out of the gate, they were not even in the race.

Try googling Paul's question. It's interesting. It appears that no one, absolutely no one, first learned of Kennedy's assassination from a newspaper. From my admittedly shallow research, it appears radio gets the nod here. A quick investigation into Pearl Harbour sees radio declared the winner here, too.

Now, Paul's mention of Hiroshima raises other issues more complex than just "where were you when . . .?" A lot has been written about the press and the handling of the Hiroshima story. If you're interested, a good place to start is with Greg Mitchell's piece The Press and Hiroshima: August 6, 1945, republished from Editor and Publisher.

Paul goes on to share his recollections of the Challenger disaster and how he first learned of the explosion from the front page headline in the Toronto Star. Let me share my recollections of the Challenger disaster and how the newspaper coverage was not only bested by television but, in many cases, lead into embarrassing errors by an unearned faith in the accuracy of the televised image.

According to MSNBC the belief that ". . . millions of television viewers were horrified to witness the live broadcast of the space shuttle Challenger exploding 73 seconds into flight . . . " is actually a myth. "What most people recall as a 'live broadcast' was actually the taped replay broadcast soon after the event." (Many now argue the Challenger didn't explode, or blow up as apparently the Toronto Star reported, but I'll let you google that.)

But whether television broadcast the event live or not, what is clear is that newspapers were left out of the loop. Newspaper newsrooms everywhere scrambled to put together a story by following it minute by minute. Newspaper reporters and editors around the world were glued to newsroom television sets.

When it came time to place the front page picture, many newspapers were horrified to discover the AP image by Bruce Weaver showed the shuttle apparently exploding against a night-black sky. The disaster occurred against a blue sky; The editors knew this, they had watched the actual event on television. Editors across North America were howling: "The sky was blue, damn it! It wasn't night!"

Back then, in 1986, it took the better part of half an hour to receive a colour transmission at a newspaper. The entire process for publishing colour pictures in the paper was long and tedious. After a transmission, all that an editor had in hand was a collection of three black and white pictures called printers. The pictures were identical except in tone and the labels magenta, yellow and cyan.

These paper printers were labeled cyan, magenta and yellow and were sent to the back-shop by editorial to be proofed. As you can imagine a lot was necessary to transform three black and white images into a colour picture in the daily paper. To give editors and the press crew an idea of how the image should look when printed, a proof was pulled. This involved three, overlapping coloured images: one cyan, one magenta and one yellow and all on a transparent base. Making these took time. As I said, this was a slow, tedious operation.

By the time the editors had proofs in hand, they were sitting on deadline. The deadline at a newspaper is well named. If you are the editor in charge of the front page, you do not miss deadline. The press must roll on time. The papers must be delivered to the waiting trucks on schedule. Release your page late too often and the newspaper will release you.

Editors everywhere were in an awful bind. The Challenger disaster had to go front with art and they knew their front page picture, the one they must use, was incorrect. The sky colour was wrong. There was no time for a corrected transmission from AP and as this was in the days before Photoshop — there was no easy way to turn the sky blue.

The solution decided upon at The London Free Press was to take the magenta and the yellow printers and opaque the negatives. Opaque was a special water-based paint used in the back-shop on negatives. Once opaqued, an area would not print. The Free Press would turn the sky blue by using only the cyan printer.

This was a quick solution. Unfortunately there was no time to pull another proof. With fingers crossed, the colour plates were sent to the press room and the big Goss letterpress rumbled into action. As the press rolled and everyone saw the first papers, hearts stopped.

The editor in charge of the front page ran into the newsroom waving one of the first papers. "We've got dog shit on blue linoleum," he bellowed in anger. "We've got to replate for city!"

The flooring picture went out to the district but was pulled and replaced for the city edition. This time the original image was used as transmitted. The sky looked black but it was better than the alternative.

The truth is the blue-black sky is correct. It is an accurate representation of the image captured by many of the photojournalists shooting at the disaster. Transparency film, used by photojournalists at the time, records images differently than electronic television cameras.

Would all those editors have been panicked by the oh-so-dark sky if they had not viewed the actual event themselves on television? I doubt it.


  1. Hi, Kenny. Re: "It appears that no one, absolutely no one, first learned of Kennedy's assassination from a newspaper," I actually learned of the event while AT a newspaper, the same rag you toiled at. I was a day copyboy at the fp on the fateful day when the news started to clatter over the AP wire machines (there were two; the second was a backup). The news was quickly assembled for the paper's then-Late Final edition, which hits the streets around 4:30 p.m. or so. I managed to salvage most of the spare wire copy later that day. My daughter has it now. Regards.

  2. That's a good blog, well written. May I suggest adding a few words to the first paragraph. I had to read it twice to get your meaning.

    Change, "...or in this case, ask" to, "...or in this case, what you ask for."

    The only differences between your work and that of a profession journalist are:
    1. your work is better
    2. your work is absolutely free

    I remember a Japanese manufacturer saying, "A profit is our reward for good work." If he was right, you'll be rewarded.

    I don't see why Paul Berton is kicking up dust about a battle that print lost over 100 years ago when the telegraph, and later radio, spread. He seems to be trying to whip up nostalgia for a past none of his readers ever knew.