This One Goes into Overtime
By Jennifer Larson & Lori Robertson
Jennifer Larson is a former AJR editorial assistant. Lori Robertson (email@example.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.
GOOD THING THERE were a few die-hards hanging around the Akron Beacon Journal newsroom.
The five of them remaining at 2:45 a.m. November 8 were wringing their hands over a wimpy final election story spitting out of the presses. The headline yelled, "It's Bush." But Managing Editor Thom Fladung, who had written the top of the story, was still hedging. He put in a couple of paragraphs alluding to possible recounts and saying that "the United States still might not have a clear winner."
He watched the wires and, other than the Associated Press, "everybody else is wholesale 'Bush wins,' " he says. No talk of recounts. No tentative hedging. "So I'm starting to feel like an idiot."
The die-hards began grumbling about the numbers in Florida, the state that had supposedly pushed George W. Bush to victory. People started saying, " 'I can't understand how they called Florida; this thing is really close,' " Fladung recalls. Someone got on the Miami Herald's Web site and saw a gap of just 2,000 votes between Bush and Al Gore in Florida.
"The networks just aren't even talking about it," Fladung says. "Then we noticed that, well, Gore was expected to come out and speak." He was about 15 minutes late. Then it was 20 minutes, then 25, 30. "We're saying, 'God, I think this is still up in the air,' " he says.
At about 3:20 a.m. Fladung ran down to the press room and asked what could be done to stop the premature front pages. It was too late for the papers that had left the building, but it was possible to change the front page for the rest of the press run. Fladung called Editor Jan Leach, who had gone home after the "It's Bush" run began. "She just kind of took a deep breath and said, 'OK,' " he says.
With about 30 to 40 minutes of the press run left, Fladung simply swapped the plates with those of an earlier edition, which had been printed at about 1:30. "Stay Tuned," the headline read. And though the earlier story wasn't perfect, it was better than awarding the election to Bush.
"It was a story I felt we could stand on given the circumstances," Fladung says.
Altogether, about 60,000 of those editions were printed during the two separate press runs. Approximately 50,000 "It's Bush" issues were printed, but the paper is not sure how many actually were distributed. The Beacon Journal, with a total circulation of 140,137, had also run a much earlier edition, reporting that it was a toss-up.
Fladung says there is a bit of "Dewey Defeats Truman" to the incident–a reference to the erroneous Chicago Tribune headline in 1948. But given the Beacon Journal's deadlines, "I thought we reacted as aggressively as we could," he says. "I wish we wouldn't have had any 'It's Bush' papers, obviously. I'm glad that we aggressively pursued it and changed it."
Of course, the Akron paper wasn't the only one stopping and starting presses at the last minute. Many papers, such as the Austin American-Statesman, circulation 187,789, followed a similar path.
Editor Rich Oppel says the Statesman had printed about 59,000 copies of "Bush!"-headlined papers before halting its presses around 2:15 a.m. The circulation director and some others had gone to the capital city's celebration site, "Bush!" papers in hand. Oppel had someone call them to say they should come back.
Thankfully, they had only sold 203 copies, and no other inaccurate papers had been delivered. The presses began churning out "History on Hold" final editions.
Other papers weren't so lucky. Many, including the Fort Worth Star-Telegram; the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Syracuse, New York's Post-Standard; and New Hampshire's Concord Monitor, delivered jumping-the-gun headlines to their readers. Says Hans Schulz, managing editor at the Concord Monitor: "It's obvious we're not alone in this.... We felt like we'd trumped our competitors, but it didn't work out that way."
Schulz feels readers will be forgiving, and Kelly Hertz, managing editor at South Dakota's Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan, agrees. Of the final election call, he says, "You hate to miss out on that." But, "We pushed [the deadline] way past when we were supposed to."
Some news organizations, including the AP and the Chicago Tribune, however, remained resolute: They never called the election for Bush.
For Oppel, who began covering presidential races in 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson trounced Barry Goldwater, this was an election night like no other. "This was by far the wildest and woolliest election in terms of the electricity in the newsroom, trying to make sense out of returns flowing unevenly from across the country," he says.
It may have been that too much information–as opposed to the days when editors watched returns tick over wire machines–was a hindrance, Oppel says. With television, the wires and the Internet spewing forth massive amounts of data, "calculating all that in an effective way may be more problematic."
But if it weren't for miamiherald.com, says Fladung, the Beacon Journal probably would not have stopped the "It's Bush" press run. "That's what really made us nervous and made us question it," he says.
The Akron paper, like most others, had relied on the networks for election results. "Obviously you come out of this and think, 'God, what am I going to do next time?' " Fladung says. He's not sure what the future will bring in terms of calling votes, but clearly the Beacon Journal can't send people down to Florida to conduct exit polls.
Emotions in the newsroom on election night bounced from excitement to anguish to worry to exhilaration. Fladung finally left the paper at 5:15 a.m. He returned on only three to three-and-a-half hours' sleep. But not before his morning paper was delivered. The headline? "It's Bush," of course.