Here Now the News

I’ve been filling in as news anchor this week on WTDY, the news/talk station in our group. Radio news gathering has changed some since I first got into radio. And it has not.

As a little baby broadcaster in the late 70s, I was fascinated by the news wire. A dot-matrix printer, loaded with a giant roll of paper, spat out a continuous feed of material from the Associated Press or United Press International. Part of the jock’s job whenever the newsroom was unstaffed was to rip and sort the copy. Most important of all: keep the printer loaded. Woe betide the night guy who let the paper run out and left the morning guys with nothing.

Although it feeds to a computer screen now, the content of the Associated Press radio wire doesn’t look any different to me than it did 30 years ago. The AP still feeds a short “newsminute” every hour or so with four or five headline national and international stories, and a handful of longer summaries throughout the day. It still provides spot news—single stories that will eventually be summarized with the general run of stuff. And it continues to feed state-specific news, weather forecasts, sports scores and game summaries, Wall Street and other business and economic stories and data, and feature material for DJs to use, under the heading of “prep.”

And it’s still written in that peculiar wire-service style. There’s at least one sentence in most wire stories that should be rewritten, and can often be removed entirely without altering the sense of the thing. Often this is the sentence meant to provide context for the rest of the story, and informs readers that Mitt Romney is the former Massachusetts governor or Scott Walker just survived a recall election in Wisconsin, and which is vital to your understanding of the story only if you just got off the boat from someplace. As for the remaining sentences, I have suspected for years that much AP copy is written in English, translated to Serbo-Croatian, and then translated back. You read this stuff cold at your peril. Years ago, there was an editor at the AP in Des Moines who was to syntax what Torquemada was to heretics. Rare was the radio newsman or DJ in the state she didn’t turn into a gibbering fool at one time or another. Rewriting wire copy before reading it on the air was a necessity then and it’s a necessity now—although many, many radio stations didn’t, and don’t.

When I was just starting out, getting information as it came off the wire made me feel like an insider. Look at all the stuff I know before anybody else does! It seemed like the whole world was there, printed out a line at a time. (And it was a line at a time, slowly, nothing like the computer printers we all have now.) What’s different now is that it’s obvious that the wire doesn’t cover the whole world, and to follow it is no longer to know everything there is to know.

That’s because the Associated Press radio wire is covering the same stuff that it did 30 years ago, in the same way, from the same sterile point of view. For example, you’ll see lots of spot stories about shelling by militants, or shelling of militants, and various entities expressing concern about it. (If the world really cared as much about shelling and militants as the AP indicates by the amount of coverage it gives to shelling and militants, there would be much less shelling and fewer militants.) There’s a remarkable number of stories every day about economic crises in various foreign countries. If there are eight people in our audience who give a damn about the weakness of the drachma, I’ll eat a stack of them. In general, you can probably learn about more stuff, faster, from random people on your Twitter feed. (I got a couple of stories via Twitter this week that never moved on the wire.)

At a station like WTDY, its own local reporting is its backbone, and the AP radio wire is just another tool in its bag. Nevertheless, its reputation as the news service of record is secure. What it does best is to tip you to the headlines at the top of page 1. In a world as wired as this one, just to read—or listen—to the stories in the latest AP Newsminute is to learn only the barest minimum about the barest minimum.

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One response

  1. My first job was as a copy boy (as it was affectionally called then — today’s it’s news assistant) on the night shift at the Long Beach Press Telegram. It was 1979. Basically, the copy boy was the flunkee for everyone in the newsroom, but I loved it. It was a great way to learn. My main duties included filling out the daily weather report, running photos to engraving, making the coffee (the night crew drank a LOT of it), and running errands. But the MAIN task was trimming the wires for the wire editor every 20 minutes or so. While we had a primitive computer system, paper copy was still used to choose and sort the stories for the next day’s paper. And the main wire I had to trim was of course the AP wire. And I felt the same way — it was cool to watch it being typed, line by line, and learn things before the rest of the world would learn them. (The other wires were Knight Ridder, the New York Times News Service, and UPI.) And you are correct — you dared not let the wire machines run out of paper or ink.

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