Tag Archives: night shifts

On the night shift

12 May

Just one more quote from Roy Shaw’s book How Newspapers Work, because I can’t resist. This time it’s his cinematic depiction of the waning hours of the night shift:

Outside the main news room the specialist writers’ rooms are in darkness. Among the series of teleprinters one machine remains switched on, still occasionally bursting into life as the tail-end of the night’s news comes through. One copy taker broods in a lonely pool of light around his typewriter, waiting for the very last of late night stories from staff reporters or local correspondents. One reporter, isolated among rows of deserted desks, waits to see if that very late story – if there is one this night – requires any attention from him.

One or two sub-editors sit among the night’s debris of scrawled-on and discarded copy paper, and page plans and tattered copies of earlier editions, rummaged through, studied and left scattered. They wait now for any attention that a late story may demand from them, buoyed up, perhaps, by the romantic notion that they may be the heroes of the night, seizing upon the great, late story and magnificently scooping their rivals with a dramatic, final change of page.

Sadly, in fact, the lot of all these “late stop” men is one of tedium followed eventually, at around four or five in the morning, by the releasing thought that whatever news comes now will be too late for that day’s paper.

That was how it was, I am sure, at a well-ordered paper produced in hot metal. On an InDesign paper, though – particularly one with a culture of revisiting pages and an endlessly excitable editor – there was altogether a lot more going on.

In the old days on the Tribune night shift, you could send four pages at 8pm for second edition, 12 pages at 10pm for third, another 12 for fourth at midnight, and then another four, if you wanted them, for the fifth at 1am. Thirty-two possible plate changes in total, and we used to use them all.

We would take over straight after the first edition had gone to press at 6pm (or, frankly, some time later). The day shift would go home, the crossover day/night workers would go for a break, the night production editor and her deputy would go into the late conference, and if you were on the 6pm-2am graveyard shift, you would be briefly left alone in the newsroom, the deserted bridge of a ship, earnestly hoping that the phone wouldn’t ring. (If it did, you would have no choice but to answer it with a crisp “Newsroom”, and then, in all probability, interrupt conference to explain in front of senior management that, eg, the front page had been sent without the barcode.)

If you were already in conference, by contrast, the editor would be flicking through the proofs in a random order with an increasing sense of restlessness, issuing a string of instructions about redesigns, story moves and page swops that you could barely scribble down fast enough. Emerging slightly dazed, with usually less than an hour to second edition, you would then have to triage the corrections for speed of completion, prioritising either the most egregious errors or the easiest ones to fix, to fill your three page slots for 8pm (the fourth being taken by the front page, which has to be sent for every edition even if it hasn’t changed).

As the crossovers returned from their breaks and the newsroom filled up again, you would push more changes out into the subs’ queue to be done in edition-time order (marked “8pm”, “10pm”, “12 or later”). Then would come the most difficult part of the evening; organising the “linked pages” of corrections.

For instance, imagine that the editor wants to make the whole of page two into a “turn page” for the splash, to give more space for the text overspilling from the front page, because new developments emerged as the first edition was going to press. To create that space, he wants to remove the turn of the other front-page story, currently at the bottom of page two, and put that on page seven, where it is vaguely thematically relevant. To make space on seven, the story in the last column will be moved to a similar sized slot on page 11, and the story currently in that slot on page 11 will be moved to page three, where it will function as a companion piece, crushed down into a short text box.

That’s a fair amount of work: re-editing the splash, re-cutting the other front-page story into a different shape, a light trim for the page seven story in its new slot, a redesign for pages two and three, and a heavy cut for the story moving from page 11. But the most significant thing about it is that none of those things can happen unless all the others happen at the same time. You can’t, say, take in the new splash with its longer turn on page two, send those two pages for third edition and then do the rest later, because the other front-page story will lose its turn and end in the middle of a sentence on page one. If you change page two and set up the new turn on page seven as well, that problem is solved, but then the story bumped off page seven will disappear for third edition readers and reappear for fourth edition readers  – hardly a satisfactory solution. And ideally, it would be best to get the updated splash on the page as soon as possible – but you have five linked pages in the run and only four slots available for 8pm. So in conference, heart sinking slightly, you scribble  1→2→7→11→3 on the top of your notepad and brace yourself for a busy third edition.

Then imagine that there is more than one run of linked pages to do that night (there often was). Or imagine that, say, the other story on the crucial page seven is also being refiled and will need a new picture, but might not be ready until close to the 10pm deadline, or might miss it altogether. Or imagine (thankfully, this is slightly before my time) that several of the linked pages in the run are in colour, but you’re only allowed a limited number of colour plate changes per edition.

It was non-stop. The hours used to fly by. After the 10pm edition, with some of the work for midnight already done, there would be time to tackle the office picnic of French bread, cheeses and salami, laid out on an empty desk. Then we would be back for another 16 plate changes – this time without the crossovers, whose shifts had come to an end. I would go home between 1am and 2am – not as bad as for Shaw’s “late stops” – fall asleep around 3:30, then wake up in late morning to the local dance station’s ambient techno show, designed to soothe people surfacing after a Saturday night on the town. It was oddly appropriate, because the night shift used to feel similarly exhausting and eventful: like clubbing, but without the euphoria.

It’s all changed now. The Tribune’s night shift was heavily reduced years ago, when cost-saving measures came in, and has been further cut back for logistical reasons during the epidemic. If there was ever a chance to sit in an Edward Hopper pool of light, waiting for the teletype machine to start clattering, it’s probably gone. And I’m grateful to have been on the day shift now these many years. But I still sometimes miss the feeling of walking into the newsroom as others are walking out, the quiet falling and the sun setting, and waiting to be handed the baton.