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By Jeremy Schiffres, Daily and Sunday Freeman, Kingston, N.Y.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Bite your tongue

I’ve long maintained that newspaper readers don’t much care about what goes into putting the paper together; they simply want to see the finished product.

But Wednesday at the Freeman was weird enough to merit giving you a peek inside the process.

The afternoon was routine. Around 2:45 p.m., Managing Editor Sam Daleo and I went over the day’s news lineup, as we always do, and decided which stories and photos would go on Thursday's front page. Sam then set out to design the page, and I did the same for page A3, our main Region page. So far, so good.

Around 4:30 p.m., we got a fax from the Ulster County District Attorney’s Office informing us that the suspect in the high-profile Irma Vega Soto murder case had pleaded guilty. OK. Big story, but not tough to handle. We simply would have to juggle some stuff on the front page to make room for it at the top. Sam and I met again briefly to discuss the necessary changes, reporter Mary Fairchild was assigned to write the Vega story, and we were back on track.

The rest of the afternoon and the early evening were uneventful -- until I made a key mistake: I ordered dinner.

A take-out Caesar’s salad usually is not hazardous to one’s health, but as I was taking a bite while sitting at my desk, something happening in the newsroom caught my attention, I turned my head mid-chew, and I planted one my sharper teeth directly into my tongue. Ouch!

My tongue hurt, but I didn’t think much of it – until I realized it felt like there was a bump on it. So I went to the men’s room, looked in the mirror and saw the bite had punctured the skin and that my tongue was bleeding.

OK. Minor crisis, but not too tough to handle. I figured I’d rinse my mouth a few times, apply some pressure with a paper towel, and that would be the end of that.

That was about 7:10 p.m.

At 7:15, my tongue still was bleeding.
7:20, still bleeding.
7:25, still bleeding.
At 7:30, an “AP News Alert” informed us a highway bridge in Minneapolis had collapsed into the Mississippi River and that numerous vehicles were in the water. And my tongue was still bleeding. Now I had two problems on my hands – not to mention the fact that I was falling behind in the evening’s other tasks because it’s hard to work a computer keyboard and mouse while applying pressure to one’s tongue.

I tackled the bridge situation first by working out a game plan with copy editor Lindsay Suchow in which she’d retool our main Nation/World page to accommodate the story. (We’d promote it on the front page with one of those red-headlined “teasers” across the top – unless I had to use that space to promote Barry Bonds’ 755th home run or Alex Rodriguez’s 500th, neither of which happened, thankfully.) Then I called my wife and asked her to get together some bags of ice cubes and some ice packs and bring them over to the office. I figured maybe I could stop the bleeding in my mouth by freezing the wound.

Rhona arrived shortly before 8 p.m., and I started icing my tongue. But it didn’t work. Then I went back to rinsing and applying pressure. Still no luck. Then back to icing. Still no luck. By this time, it was about 8:45, and I was falling way behind in my work. So I went back to my desk, with one ice cube against the bleeding tongue in my mouth and a bag of extra ice cubes in my hand, and started to tackle as many tasks as possible, quickly, in an effort to get caught up. I put the Ulster County Fair story on page 1, updated our daily reader poll, finished the “week ahead” promotional box at the bottom of page A3, updated the front-page index and early lottery numbers, edited the Irma Vega Soto story and put it on the front page, put the continuations of the front-page stories on page A6, kept one eye on CNN and the other on our AP wire to make sure the Minnesota death toll hadn’t suddenly jumped to 50, checked the Yankee game to see if A-Rod was going to make my night even more hectic, and so on.

By about 9:45 p.m., I was caught up on my work but – you guessed it -- still bleeding. And it was long past time to get some medical attention. So I gave Assistant City Editor Matt Spireng a rundown of what still needed to be done for Thursday’s paper, shut down my computer and had Rhona – a faithful spouse and loyal friend, if ever there was one -- drive me to the hospital.

We got to the emergency room at Benedictine about 9:55 p.m., checked in and had a seat. The waiting room crowd was mercifully small, so I was seen by the triage nurse within about 15 minutes and was in the treatment area a few minutes later. A woman with a sprained toe and a woman who had been scratched up pretty badly by a possibly infected cat were ahead of me in the treatment area, so I didn’t get attention right away. But I used the time wisely – or, rather, I had Rhona use the time wisely: She took my cell phone out to the waiting room, called Matt at the Freeman office and found out how things were going – and what the Minnesota death toll was (six at this point) and whether A-Rod or Bonds had “gone yard” (they hadn’t).

The ER doctor was shining a light into my mouth by about 10:40 p.m. – by which time most of the bleeding had stopped – and gave me my first good news of the night: I didn’t need any stitches. Because the bleeding had subsided, he said, it would be better to just let the wound heal on its own. I’d feel some discomfort and would have to be careful about what I ate, he told me, but he said stitching the wound shut would create the risk of trapping germs that could cause an infection.

I signed my hospital discharge papers about 10:55 p.m., got back into Rhona’s car and headed back to the Freeman office. Matt, Lindsay and copy editor Joe Gerace had done yeomen’s work in my absence in keeping us on schedule; I merely had to lock in the front-page “teaser” about the bridge disaster, add the late lottery numbers to the index box at the bottom of the page and send the page to the printer.

Our deadline for completing the first of our three editions is 11:30 p.m., and, somehow or other, we managed to come in under the wire.

We then had to deal with changing our front page and our main Nation/World page for the second and third editions to accommodate changes in the bridge story – most notably that the death toll had risen to seven – but that was pretty run-of-the-mill newspaper work given everything else that had happened in the previous five hours.

A late home run by Bonds in the West Coast game between the Giants and Dodgers would have thrown a major wrench into the works – because both the front page and the Sports section would have had to change for our second or third edition – but Barry was considerate enough to spend another night stuck at 754, and he was pulled for a pinch runner after an eighth-inning walk right at the 12:30 a.m. deadline for our third edition. So we were able – once and for all – to put the paper to bed.

Bed is where I’m headed now, too – at about 2:15 a.m. Thursday – but I felt I couldn’t retire my tired eyes and sore tongue for the night without first helping you understand that, at least on some days, creating the newspaper that magically appears on your doorstep each morning is anything but routine.

(A final thought: Yes, I realize the pain in my mouth and the relatively minor amount of blood I lost during tonight's episode can't, in any way, compare to the unimaginable agony experienced by the people on that Minneapolis bridge and their loved ones. It was not my intent in writing this blog to suggest my problem was somehow greater than theirs; I would never be so callous. And I grieve for all the people who died in the tragedy. My intent merely was to shed a little light on the sometimes out-of-the ordinary process of producing the Freeman.)



Blogger sherijberi said...

I thowp yew feewin bettew an dat yew tun ees awl heewed.

August 3, 2007 at 11:02 PM 

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