Thursday, May 18, 2006

How the magic happens

Many of you have written in asking, "Ian, just how do you manage to put together such a top-notch newspaper every week, and still have time for such scintillating blogs?"

Well, even though no one has ever actually asked me that, I'll answer the second question first: I blog by dictation. My Norwegian secretary Ingrid writes down my thoughts and musings, which she then types while I get back to doing all the Important Stuff that fills my days. This explains any and all typographical errors that may (or may not) appear in this space.

But maybe you all would be interested in learning how the Turret is put together anyway. It's the job I do for the Army, and while it's not quite as sexy as, say, "Infantry Squad leader" or "G.I. Jane," it still has its place.

Our newscycle begins Thursday, which happens to be when each week's Turret is printed and distributed. We start off by trolling our vast network of informants, tipsters, experts, and analysts, who keep us abreast of what's happening in the Greater Fort Knox region.

Actually, all this means is that we check our e-mail.

Once our Editor in Chief (He Whose Name We Dare Not Speak, or HWNWDNS, for short) determines what new assignments need to be doled out, he gives the list to yours truly, who diligently updates the assignments list from the week before. This sounds like a lot of responsibility, since basically it involves distributing assignments to our crack team of expert journalists. Who'd be best cut out to handle the upcoming court-martial? Will so-and-so's photography skills be up to the task of shooting a general making a speech at a podium?

Actually, using my own management philosophy (which is a combination of "hands-on" management and "not managing at all"), I usually read each story idea aloud at high volume from my post in the newsroom. I listen for a response, and if I don't get one, I give the story to a staffer who's not around.

Just kidding. Right?

Truthfully, it's a collaboration. If someone's interested in one of the stories we've got for the week, they'll usually speak up, and by the time we've gone around the room once or twice, all the assignments have been snapped up. I'll update the weekly story list to reflect the changes and send a copy to all the writers, stringers, and of course, the bosses.

After that, it's off to the races. Notepads, pens, cameras, and tape recorders in hand (although this last, I feel, is for rank amateurs -- okay, yeah, I use one too, sometimes), we'll cross the breadth and width of Fort Knox, digging up interviews, photographs, and breathless descriptions of traffic patterns.

Friday through Tuesday morning are normally solely devoted to the process of generating content. We also routinely receive submissions from overseas, and we use services such as ARNEWS and DefenseLink as our version of the Associated Press/Reuters wire services (which we are not, by Defense Department mandate, allowed to use).

By Tuesday, we've got a pretty good idea of what exactly will be running. Stories will sometimes fall through, others will crop up late, but Tuesday afternoon is the cutoff. Around 3 p.m., I'll get a phone call from our publisher in Elizabethtown, and one of their advertising staff will tell give me the "ad lengths" -- how much space is devoted to advertisement, as well as where they all go. These lengths I'll copy onto blank dummy sheets. The remaining space is where our content will go.

HWNWDNS then hands me the content list, which has all the stories we've collected that week, divided into various categories -- "must run," "editorial," "page one," etc. Staffers will have placed all their photographs into a shared hard drive, so I'll have a list of those as well. Once I know how long each story is (another call to the publisher), I can start laying the paper out.

The toughest pages are the open ones -- Page 1, of course, but also our regular photo pages, such as "Spectrum." They're tough, yeah, but they also offer the best opportunities for creativity. The vast majority of the rest of the paper is dictated by adspace, and often, there aren't many options as to how text is going to flow on the page. It's just a matter of figuring out what goes where. For covers, I usually head over to the Newseum for inspiration.

Once the dummies are done, I send them by FAX down to the publisher's layout team. They have a Quark expert down there who's been working on the Turret since long before computers were used in pagination, so she's able to get things done pretty quickly. I'll make sure she's got as much content as I can possibly send her before leaving Tuesday night, which usually ends around 7 or 8 p.m.

Wednesday morning we convoy down to the publisher, where we make tweaks to the layout and correct errors by reading proof sheets -- smaller print-offs of pages as they're being assembled. Wednesday is also headline-writing day. HWNWDNS will eventually determine each page to be either "good" or "COS," which means "Correct On Screen." A COS page can have whatever errors that remain fixed on the computer screen and then sent to the plate machine; no further proofs need to be printed.

Once all the pages are proofed, corrected, approved, and sent to the plate machine, we've got a paper. It rolls through the presses that night, and we have a new edition on our desks the next morning.

So now you know how I justify my consumption of your tax dollars. Aren't you happy I told you?