“Deadline” is the right term for that snapshot moment when we commit our work to paper. In ink.
It’s the right term because we’re dead to the reader if we’ve missed the story or made a mistake. “Deadline” is apt because when our printer’s DGM 440 starts beating 40,000 impressions per hour onto newsprint, all hopes for improvement, let alone perfection, are dead.
There is no “delete” button on a newspaper, no “edit post” function, and there is no privacy setting behind which we can hide. You can still see an original copy of America’s first paper, Publick Occurrences, published in “Bofton”, 1690. Archaeologists pore over readable Chinese paper fragments from 150 AD. Our shortcomings live for millennia.
Which is why reader disappointment with The Leader is the great honor of this job. Your expectations remind us to never be satisfied.
Frustration and even fury come at The Editor (me) in person, through letters and phone calls and in all-caps emails. The Mullens may pay the taxes, sign the paychecks and live in the apartment upstairs, but it is clear that readers of The Leader consider this the community’s paper.
Exasperation seeps into many of our daily conversations. Even friends and family can’t help but shrug or shake their heads at the latest typo or clumsy mangling of the King’s English.
Displeasure gusts out of sports fans who have waited and waited for us to celebrate something other than robotics teams and debate champions.
Our imperfections are weekly fodder for several coffee klatches of Bay Area, New York City and Washington, D.C. expats, who take pains to inform me The Leader is beneath their contempt. After all, their news fix was ever the strong stuff peddled by the Chronicle, the Times, the Post.
If readers feel let down by The Leader, imagine the day-after regrets of this news staff of 4.5 souls.
We, too, have travelled the world and admired great journalism. Though we are at times benighted, we usually know better, even when we don’t manage to do better. We create every miscue, clumsy phrase and outright mistake.
Hence my hairline. I have spent a lifetime producing work that fails to live up to readers’ standards or my own and having that effort glare back at me from a printed page that will never blink. It may be catbox liner, but it’s durable stuff, whether in memory or National Archive.
Which is why every barb hits its mark. We may try to console ourselves with spiffy awards or rare moments of public acclaim, but even our best work sometimes makes us cringe when we look at it again. There are people we let down and voiceless people we failed to give a voice. There’s always an errant comma or a missing “l” that makes a nice word mildly racy.
And yet there are no slaves here.
Hard-working, personable people who could prosper in many other fields choose to work odd hours for short pay in the newsroom. They sign on knowing full well that second-guessing and sneers are a feature, not a bug, of the job. Speculation about our lineage and nose-wrinkling at the deficiency of our scholarship come with the business card.
My colleagues choose this work because it matters. Your immediate and passionate feedback keeps us honest when we get up, dust ourselves off, and try again to tell well the stories of this place. Every time you say you want better, more, or different, we see the world through another set of eyes. We are reminded by you that journalism can and should be the oxygen of healthy self-rule by a fractious, fractured people.
We can do better and we will.
Dean Miller is Editor of The Leader.