Sunday, November 28, 2021
Nov. 28, 2021

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From the Newsroom: Bush’s death required a quick pivot

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9:08 p.m. Friday: “DALLAS (AP) — Former President George H.W. Bush has died at the age of 94.”

9:16 p.m.: Text message to me from News Editor Merridee Hanson. “Talked to (wire editor) Joey (Trull) — They have already reworked A1 to lead with Bush and have a handle on posting.”

In the news business, you need to be able to pivot. And that’s what happened the evening of Nov. 30 when we received word that our 41st president had died.

There hadn’t been any news that he was near death. So when had we picked our front-page stories at 3:30 p.m., the thought there would be a second big story that day was the furthest from our minds.

We had already decided to break with our usual habit of showcasing a local story on the front page in favor of the other big wire story: Two earthquakes rocked Anchorage, Alaska. Although thankfully no one had been reported killed, the photos were powerful, and many of our readers have connections there.

When Joey spotted the news of President Bush’s death, front-page designer Romana Wood was already well into laying out the earthquake package. She quickly shifted it down the page. President Bush was our new lead story, with a big six-column headline.

The Associated Press already has obituaries of famous people largely prewritten, ready to complete, edit and send at a moment’s notice. In this case, the first complete obituary moved on the wire at 9:14 p.m., only six minutes after the first alert, and an expanded version moved seven minutes later. Joey posted that story on our site, columbian.com, at 9:28 p.m. That’s only 18 minutes after word of the death was first received.

This sort of thing always amazes me. It was probably less than 30 minutes from the time President Bush’s spokesman called the Associated Press bureau in Dallas until a complete, professionally written, fact-checked story appeared on The Columbian’s website.

Of course, coverage of a president’s death doesn’t end with the first story. Our team of wire and web editors spent the next six days monitoring the story, posting updates, and bringing stories to our daily news meetings.

For Sunday, we stayed with our plan to use reporter Wyatt Stayner’s in-depth look at Medicaid access for local children as the centerpiece, but put the “World reacts to president’s death” story in a narrow column next to it, but still touching the top of the page. (We call this a “shoulder lead.”) Funeral plans were announced Sunday, and that merited a Monday shoulder lead.

I should mention that part of the reason we didn’t replace either the centerpieces on the first three days was that there was only file art. We knew there would be fresh, compelling photos later in the week.

That was the case on Monday, when President Bush’s body was taken to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. A dramatic overhead photo caught the eye of page designer Dave Magnuson and he produced an appealing Tuesday front page. Less happened on Tuesday, so we went back to local news Wednesday. But it was a no-brainer that the president’s state funeral would be our lead art and our lead story for Thursday’s paper. A strong photo from the Bush funeral train drove our decision to stay with the story again Friday. We moved our planned lead art story, a local feature, until today.

Although it’s important for The Columbian to keep our focus on the local news, we have to be ready to react to developments around the world. In this case, we did a great job.

Craig Brown is The Columbian’s editor. His column will appear in this space periodically. Contact him at 360-735-4514 or craig.brown@columbian.com

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