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Christopher Caen Headshot

Friday Finish: The Composers

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It's been a helluva week for those of us in the fourth estate. Now, for people who don't know what "fourth estate" refers to, it's the unwashed masses of journalists, with which I happily (if maybe incorrectly) include myself. And I have to admit that the "traditional" members of this esteemed class are coming out of this week looking pretty good.

For years we have been taking our lumps as we have heard over and over again that print news is dying a brutal, and horrible, and inevitable death. And then this week, during one of the most important recent decisions from the Supreme Court, two major online sites, CNN and Fox, blew it on the decision. There for everyone to see were screaming headlines that Obamacare had been shot down by the Supreme Court.

Except it hadn't. Now, all of us know what happened, and it had nothing to do with conspiracies or Fox being a puppet of the Republicans. In reality all news outlets, regardless of their political proclivities, had multiple versions of the story ready to go depending on the decision. But in this day and age of microsecond postings and everyone having to be first with a story, we have reached the point where it's better to be first than to be right.

So some nitwit at Fox read the first page of the decision and posted the incorrect story block. Turns out they were completely wrong, but heck, traffic is traffic so it didn't hurt that bad. And the fact that everyone then picked up on the mistake surely sent their audience numbers through the roof.

But at what cost? Everyone talks about how the news has become "frictionless," but is this actually a problem? Has the lack of honest to God effort required made the news less valuable these days? Now, I have been knocking around media for more years than I will ever admit, so you will have to bear with me for a second.

In the olden days, (insert sepia toned Ken Burns imagery here) you had to work to get the news out. During my tenure at the San Francisco Chronicle, the existence of a deadline hung over you every minute. And let me tell you, getting there was an effort. The foot soldiers in this daily battle were the composing dudes. Yes, we called them dudes, even though the average age of someone in the composing room was about 200. These dudes were old, and they did things I had never seen before.

Let me put this in perfect contrast to whatever intern hit the wrong button for the wrong files for Fox's website. Picture the Chronicle sports desk early spring. I am working agate, which is the sports page filled with box scores, sports schedules, and trivia. It is the worst page to work, because it involves about a billion formatting commands to make the stupid thing print correctly. And it's late at night. Really late, because it's college basketball season and there is a tournament in Hawaii.

So, the race becomes whether the games will get done before the paper goes to press. There is a deadline that is staring me square in the face. Almost the entire agate page is done, except for a hole where (hopefully), the damnable scores from Hawaii will go. But this is not what I am worried about. The scary part is not the scores. The scary part is that in order to get the page done in time, I have to go to the composing room to edit the page with the composers on the fly.

And they scare me. Well, let's be honest they scare everyone. They are old. They dress like crazed hillbillies. They disappear for hours in the middle of the day and wind up in local bars like Hanno's and the M&M. They work with the sharpest, biggest Xacto knives you have ever seen. They smell funny.

OK, that last part isn't true, but they are not like the rest of us. So as the seconds tick off the last game, they are all I can think of, and then the flurry of action hits. AP wires the finals and box scores. I plaster it into the page. I enter the ridiculous number of formatting commands and hit print. And then I stare at the door across the room and slowly rise.

And I enter the lair of the composers. They live in a room filled with long tables where the entire paper is physically laid out. They all stand at these tables, lights highlighting the paper while the rest of the room is bathed in darkness. They have already grabbed my page off the printer, and now the magic begins. With deft movements their blades start dancing across the page, cutting down articles, trimming for space, and moving different elements back and forth. All with the tip and edge of the knives, so their fingers will never smudge the print. The original "cut and paste."

And composers' eyes are so tuned that they can pick up a typo instantly.

"Are you sure this is right," they ask, and even before I can answer they are precisely cutting out words and sentences and laying them down somewhere else. Editors edit. Composers compose. We would argue with our editors, but we never argued with the composers, because they were always right. Always.

And then they yell "film," off it goes into the bowels of the building, and minutes later we exhale as the building shudders and the massive presses come alive on the first floor. I would look at the composer, he would look at me, and both us would think the same thing: We made it. One more time.

This week I thought of the composers, and I thought about deadlines. Yes, the news has been set free in this wonderful new digital world. But something in the process seems to have been lost. And I wonder if somehow we would all be better if the composers were still looking over our work, knives dancing in magical puddles of light, making sure that every word was right, and every sentence meant something.