Wednesday, May 12, 2021
May 12, 2021

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From the Newsroom: AP news alerts no flash in the pans

By , Columbian Editor
Published:

I am always awed by the pomp and circumstance surrounding presidential inaugurations, so I was glued to the television Wednesday morning. (By the way, I am ready to vote for the youth poet laureate, Amanda Gorman, for president in about 2040.)

While I watched TV I was also keeping an eye on social media to see what was going on in Olympia. Would there be any unrest to cover?

I follow Rachel La Corte, who covers Washington state government for The Associated Press, on Twitter. She reported it was quiet. She also retweeted a message from the AP’s Washington, D.C., Bureau chief, Julie Pace: @AP Flash WASHINGTON (AP) — Joe Biden sworn in as 46th president of the United States, takes office amid pandemic, economic woes, deep divisions.

A flash? That is a very special word in wire service lingo, and one I hadn’t heard in many years. Wasn’t it obsolete? If not, I wondered what had happened to it.

First, a little history. For most of the 20th century, AP news was distributed from regional centers using leased telephone wires. Every member newsroom had a teletype printer, or multiple printers, that chugged away all day printing stories onto long rolls of paper. The clack-clacking made a lot of noise! A wire editor would check them periodically, cut the stories apart and sort them into piles. Toward deadline, the editor would sort through the piles and choose the stories to be set into type for the next edition.

Because the printers were slow, wire editors did other things too, so the teletypes were equipped with bells that AP could ring if a story was important to know about right away. These bell-worthy stories were slugged, in order of increasing priority, as URGENT, BULLETIN, or FLASH. A flash was worth five bells.

The wire service terminology became so important the words entered our everyday language. Who hasn’t heard of a news bulletin or a news flash?

But even newspaper technology changes. The teletypes gave way to computers, and wire service transmission moved from phone lines to satellites and then to the internet. We get our AP feed today in two ways, either dumped directly into our news database, where we sort and edit it using our specialized content management software, or by logging into the AP’s secure website, AP Newsroom.

None of the content is labeled as a FLASH or a BULLETIN, although AP does move what it calls APNewsAlerts. Like their FLASH and BULLETIN ancestors, APNewsAlerts are generally one sentence in length and are meant to let editors know something big is happening, and that AP is on the story.

So I was confused. Is there such a thing still as a news flash? Rachel also tweeted a link, which led me to an interesting 2019 blog entry on AP’s public website by John Daniszewski, AP’s vice president for standards. First, apparently bulletins are no more.

There is still a flash priority, but it is encoded into the metadata — the background code — of the story, so customers like me don’t see the word FLASH. A flash code moves the information across the internet with the utmost priority, interrupting everything else that AP’s computers might be doing.

“Nevertheless, the concept of a ‘flash’ still excites AP filers,” wrote Daniszewski. “The word itself stirs the adrenaline. It still means sending the most important, historic news at AP’s fastest priority.

“To push the button on a flash becomes something to reminisce on or to brag about years later because one is part of the history.”

It’s also still true that news has to be truly monumental to be flash status. Most years, not a single news story rises to that level. But on Sept. 11, 2001, AP moved two flashes — one when each of the World Trade Center towers collapsed after the terrorist attacks. In other words, a flash is a rare bird, but not extinct.

Joe Biden apparently earned a flash this week. And maybe, someday, so will President Gorman.

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