Tuesday, October 28, 2008

News in the Night

As election day approaches, I can't help but feel a bit nostalgic for the days when I used to cover local results. I vowed I would not turn this blog into a creaky memoir about the Good Old Days, but election coverage these days is just not the same.

There was a time when Election Night meant constant coverage. Local and national anchor teams sat in front of massive maps giving us the state-by-state breakdown, numbers were posted with magnetic numbers on metal boards, rear projection screens, or even black markers on white boards. On radio, you just read the results. But either way, Election Night meant a long night. The news director ordered pizza. You sat in a board of elections lobby gabbing with your fellow reporters, catching up on media gossip while you waited for more precincts to report in. And when they did, the results were usually written on a white board, or a chalk board, or at one courthouse I worked, they used an overhead projector.

On radio, results were phoned in, which meant you had to share the courthouse phones with your journalistic brethren. Banks of phones would be set up for the media, and you would be using them most of the night, as results trickled in from the hand counting of the ballots. During the 80's cell phones starting showing up. Reporters would unfurl their "bag phones" searching for a "hot spot" much the way laptop dogs hunt for WIFI today. Early cell phones went through batteries like the Tasmanian Devil goes through a Golden Coral. After two or three calls, reporters were searching for electrical outlets. More than a few election wrap ups were phoned in from dark hallways or the men's room. I usually did my final report in the car, with the phone plugged into the power outlet for the cigarette lighter - back when cars had cigarette lighters.

Those were the days. And now they're gone.

You see, there's not much call for wall-to-wall team coverage at the local level anymore. Sure, the presidential elections have been controversial gabfests for the national networks and cable news giants. But for many local stations the contest for sheriff or common pleas court judge really isn't worth the bitch calls they'll get breaking into "Dancing With The Stars." So they run a crawl throughout the night. And these days you can get the numbers on any number of websites faster, easier, and more detailed than you'll find anywhere else. And for the reporters, unless you happen to be at a county where the chads are hanging or a 69 year-old poll worker gets lost with the last precinct of ballots, you're done and on your way home by 10:00.

It's all fast and efficient now. And that's the way it ought to be.

But just once more, how I'd like to taste a soggy pizza in a stuffy newsroom after midnight.

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