Chas­ing his­tory

A glimpse inside the news­room

Modern Healthcare - - OPINIONS EDITORIALS -

Rarely in one’s jour­nal­ism ca­reer do you get to cover one of the big­gest sto­ries of the decade, let alone do it with a group of tal­ented, hard-work­ing jour­nal­ists at your side. I had the priv­i­lege of do­ing both two weeks ago when we cov­ered the U.S. Supreme Court’s de­ci­sion up­hold­ing most of the key pro­vi­sions of the Pa­tient Pro­tec­tion and Af­ford­able Care Act. The fol­low­ing is my ac­count from inside Mod­ern Health­care’s news­room in Chicago of how we cov­ered the story. I’m retelling it here not just to record it for pos­ter­ity but to reaf­firm the com­mit­ment we have to bring­ing you the lat­est news and in­for­ma­tion you need to do your job bet­ter and more suc­cess­fully.

My week started out­side of the news­room, ac­tu­ally, at Mid­way Air­port in Chicago, where I was catch­ing a 6 a.m. flight on South­west Air­lines to Las Ve­gas to cover the Health­care Fi­nan­cial Man­age­ment As­so­ci­a­tion 2012 An­nual Na­tional In­sti­tute. It was Mon­day, June 25, and it was widely ex­pected that the high court would is­sue its rul­ing that day shortly af­ter 9 a.m. CDT. If it did come out, I would miss the big news as all elec­tronic de­vices would be turned off as we made our fi­nal ap­proach into Las Ve­gas at about the same time.

Af­ter I boarded the plane in Chicago, I asked one of the flight at­ten­dants whether the pilot would an­nounce the Supreme Court rul­ing on health­care re­form. “What re­form?” she asked. I said, “You know, the law that re­quires peo­ple to have in­surance. If you don’t get it from your com­pany, you have to buy it your­self.” She said, “Who would be dumb enough to pass a law like that? That will just make in­surance com­pa­nies rich.” Frus­trated with much of the pub­lic’s lack of knowl­edge of the ACA, I qui­etly sat down in my seat.

As our wheels touched down at McCar­ran In­ter­na­tional Air­port, I turned on my Black­Berry and got on Twit­ter just as we and other news out­lets re­ported that there was no rul­ing that day and in­stead would likely hap­pen on Thurs­day, June 28. Be­fore leav­ing work the pre­vi­ous Fri­day, we put the fi­nal touches on the blue­print of a 24-page spe­cial edi­tion that would come out July 2. Ev­ery re­porter and edi­tor had their as­sign­ment. But now, with that is­sue need­ing to be shipped to our printer the night of June 29, we would have just two days to put it to­gether.

In Las Ve­gas, where we pub­lished our elec­tronic show daily, Live@HFMA, ev­ery­one went about their busi­ness. Back in Chicago, Neil McLaugh­lin, our manag­ing edi­tor, and Gregg Blesch, our news edi­tor, con­tin­ued to pre­pare the troops. Kind of like Ike wait­ing for a break in the weather to in­vade Nor­mandy. Rich Daly, our Wash­ing­ton re­porter, would be inside the court to phone in the rul­ing. Jes­sica Zig­mond, our Wash­ing­ton bureau chief, would be out­side the court to video­tape ac­tiv­i­ties be­fore the rul­ing and re­ac­tion af­ter­wards. Joe Carl­son, our le­gal re­porter, was tasked with writ­ing the July 2 cover story and was lin­ing up back­ground ma­te­rial and sources. Other re­porters were as­signed side­bars and in­ter­views. Our graph­ics staff was pre­par­ing in­fo­graph­ics for the spe­cial edi­tion as well as plan­ning what pho­tos we wanted. Our copy desk edited in­fo­graph­ics for the mag­a­zine and our web­site as well as a five-page time­line for the mag­a­zine and laid out a game plan for pro­duc­ing all those pages on such a tight dead­line. And our dig­i­tal staff read­ied them­selves to use all our avail­able means, in­clud­ing so­cial me­dia, to get the story out fast but, more im­por­tantly, ac­cu­rately. They also prepped a spe­cial sec­tion on our web­site to go live that morn­ing.

We, like many other news out­lets, drafted five dif­fer­ent ver­sions of a news bul­letin, de­pend­ing on which way the high court went. We con­sid­ered pre-post­ing the sto­ries on our web­site. Then, all we’d have to do is se­lect the right one to pub­lish at the right time the in­stant the court ruled. But ex­pe­ri­ence of­ten trumps clev­er­ness, and we de­cided not to pre-post any con­tent. Too many times in my jour­nal­ism ca­reer have I seen pre-writ­ten obit­u­ar­ies ac­ci­den­tally go live when the per­son is still breath­ing or a gag head­line only for in­ter­nal use in­stead make the front page of a news­pa­per. It was the right call. Just ask the Chicago Sun-Times, whose var­i­ous ver­sions of the story were ac­ci­den­tally pub­lished on­line be­fore the de­ci­sion was handed down. Or ask the Re­pub­li­can can­di­date for U.S. Se­nate from In­di­ana, whose four video re­sponses to the rul­ing went live on YouTube.

My wake-up call came promptly at 3 a.m. PDT in Las Ve­gas on June 28, and I quickly packed and headed to the air­port. I camped out at Gate C11, hop­ing that my 7:35 a.m. flight back to Chicago would be de­layed long enough for me to hear the de­ci­sion. It would hap­pen shortly af­ter 7 a.m. PDT. With “SCOTUSblog” on my lap­top and Twit­ter run­ning on my phone, I waited. I was B50.

Have your board­ing pass ready. Pas­sen­gers with spe­cial needs. Pas­sen­gers trav­el­ing with small chil­dren. A1 through A30. A31 through A60. B1 through B30. The de­ci­sion is in. CNN re­ports on Twit­ter that the man­date was struck down. “SCOTUSblog” says man­date sur­vives as a tax. B31 through B60. We board, and I take my seat, hav­ing ev­ery con­fi­dence in our staff to sift through the con­flict­ing in­for­ma­tion and get it right. We do. Less than four min­utes af­ter the first re­ports, we use Twit­ter to break the news to our read­ers at 9:11 a.m. CDT. An e-mail news bul­letin shortly fol­lows with the news and more de­tails. Time to turn off all elec­tronic de­vices.

As I told our staff in a memo be­fore I left town, “We want to be right and first. Then right and sec­ond. Wrong and first means the un­em­ploy­ment line.” A bit dra­matic, but they got the point. Put ac­cu­racy above all else. It’s the bedrock of our cred­i­bil­ity with read­ers, es­pe­cially in the in­stant news world we live in to­day.

On board, I fol­lowed the ac­tion on my lap­top. The 20-some­thing with a hang­over in the mid­dle seat next to me passed out not know­ing that he would have ac­cess to health in­surance for the rest of his life. While he slept it off, I wrote the script for the next edi­tion of Ad­vance No­tice, our weekly video pre­view of the mag­a­zine, which we would shoot in the news­room that af­ter­noon. Back in Chicago, the plan to pro­duce the July 2 spe­cial edi­tion kicked in and was ex­e­cuted per­fectly by our staff un­der the di­rec­tion of McLaugh­lin and Blesch.

I walked in to the news­room about 2:30 p.m. CDT and dropped my bags. “What’s new?” I asked. They gave me a cou­ple of quick looks and went back to work.


Ed­i­tors Gregg Blesch, left, Neil McLaugh­lin and David Burda

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