A glimpse inside the newsroom
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