The anatomy of a deadline story

I don’t write on deadline much. Don’t really have the chance anymore. And sometimes, I miss it.

Deadline writing is an art and a rush, a sweat-inducing, fingers-shaking exercise. You’re having a brain cramp or writer’s block? Doesn’t matter. You want to write flowy, inspirational words that could win you a Pulitzer? Doesn’t matter. All that matters is deadline. Miss deadline, and you’re screwing everybody on the copy desk who are in charge of getting out the paper on time. You miss deadline, and your story might not make the first edition. You make deadline, though, and it’s a wonderful, endorphin-releasing, tension-exhaling moment.

It, if I had to pick a word, is awesome. And scary.

I haven’t had to do it in quite a while. When I worked at the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle, I’d spend a couple nights a week covering games and writing on deadline. When I moved to the Cincinnati Post, an afternoon paper, that deadline pressure (and euphoria) disappeared. Since the paper didn’t begin printing until the next morning, you could take all the time you needed to write your story, edit your mistakes, and adjust your prose. The copy didn’t really need to be in until 3 a.m., so basically you had, if you really wanted it, three or four hours to write.*

*This, of course, is a blessing and curse. When your deadline hits, your story is done – for better or for worse. Then, you can go home or to the bar or to wherever. With no deadline, there’s no ending time. You just keep working until you’re done. I never did it this way, but if a former colleague of mine didn’t like his story, he’d delete all his copy and start over again. Like Sisyphus with ink-stained fingers. That, my friends, can be a curse.

The only day you really felt that deadline pressure at the Post was on Friday nights, because Saturdays were the only days we published in the A.M. So, every once in a great while, covering the odd college basketball game on a Friday night, you could satisfy your jones for that deadline high.

You get used to not worrying about deadline. You get used to writing stories that aren’t formulaic gamers. You can analyze, you can spend extra time getting the key quote, because you have the extra time to report and reflect. You don’t have to write play-by-play. You can be better than that.

So, you forget the deadline emotions. You forget the fear of missing it and the euphoria of making it.

Which leads me to the game a couple Saturdays ago when I covered the UC-Providence basketball game for the Providence Journal. If you want, you can check out my game story and my notebook (well, it was originally a notebook. I guess the final two notes were killed).

My first deadline for my game story (and it was an actual game story, with play by play and everything) was 10:45 p.m., about 45 minutes after the game should have ended. Then, a quick-hit notebook had to be in by 11:15 p.m. The problem was the game went long; didn’t finish until about 10:15. Which meant I had to talk to at least two people for the stories I was writing – the Providence head coach and a player. Which meant I didn’t have very much time. That’s an understatement, actually. I had no time.

Since, by early in the second half, I knew this game wasn’t going to be a blowout (the dream scenario for a sports writer on deadline is a blowout one way or the other, because you don’t have to worry about your story hinging on the end of the game, where a last-minute lucky shot can force you to delete everything you had spent the past 30 minutes writing), I had to write during the game. The last 8 minutes or so of the game: couldn’t really tell you what happened, because I wasn’t watching. I was tapping.

With about 2 minutes or so to go – I can’t be sure because, again, I wasn’t watching the clock or the game – here’s sort of what I had on my laptop.

By Josh Katzowitz

CINCINNATI — The collapse for Providence wasn’t quite as shocking as the South Florida game eight days ago when the Friars blew a nine-point lead with 49 seconds to play. But on Saturday night, in a game the Friars desperately needed to win, the downfall was nearly as devastating.

Cincinnati, keyed by a point guard who barely had seen the court lately, went on a huge second-half run and kept Jamine Peterson from having an impact in the final 20 minutes to roll to a xx-xx win at Fifth Third Arena.

With a stretch of seven games that includes five contests against ranked teams (including at No. 4 Syracuse, vs. No. 7 Georgetown, at No. 3 Villanova and vs. No. 9 West Virginia), the Friars had a good chance to pick up another road win against a middle-of-the-pack Big East squad.

Coupled with a 15-point victory against No. 19 Connecticut on Wednesday, a win versus the Bearcats on Saturday could have vaulted the Friars (12-9, 4-5 Big East) into the top half of the conference.

Instead, the Bearcats went on a 16-1 run midway through the second half to take a three-point PC lead and turn it into a double-digits deficit for the Friars. Much of it came with Peterson on the bench. Yes, Peterson scored 19 points, but none of that came in the final 17 minutes of the game.

“xx Insert coach quote here xx”

Now, the lead is just kind of eh. I realize the collapse I was speaking about during the Cincinnati game wasn’t nearly as devastating or shocking as what happened to Providence the week before. But since I haven’t followed Providence all season, this was the best line I could deliver. Wasn’t great; wasn’t terrible.

Then, things changed. Dammit, things changed.

Providence started making a comeback, started pulling closer and closer to the Bearcats. I was writing my story, but this was hard to ignore. If Providence, God forbid*, tied the game or took the lead, I was completely screwed.

*I don’t mean this because I went into the game wanting to see Cincinnati win. You know I don’t care about that. But when Team A builds a double-digit lead and you spend 30 minutes crafting a game story based on those facts, you don’t want to have to start over when deadline is peering over your shoulder. As sports writers say, “I don’t root for a team. I root for myself.” At this point, I wanted Cincinnati to win, because if not, it would be a ginormous pain in my ass. And because I might not make deadline.

I had stopped keeping play by play in my notebook with 8 minutes to go, because 1) I didn’t have time to jot notes while writing my game story and 2)I figured it wouldn’t matter anyway because Cincinnati was on an easy path to victory. Then, a Providence player (and Marietta, Ga. native) named Sharaud Curry hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to three with 8 seconds to play. I was nervous. I needed Cincinnati to score to seal the game. Time out after time out had pushed the game to 10:10 p.m. or so. The writer next to me, also on deadline, said: “What do you think about an overtime?” I told him I would not be amused. Luckily for the scribes, the Bearcats hit a free throw with 5 seconds remaining to seal the game.

So, I inserted this sentence at the end of paragraph No. 2, and even though it was a bit clunky and didn’t really show how close Providence had been to making its comeback, there wasn’t anything else to do.

PC, thanks to Sharaud Curry’s 27 points, made a last-minute desperation run but ultimately fell short during its 92-88 loss to the Bearcats at Fifth Third Arena.

OK, once the final buzzer sounded, I was off to talk to coach Keno Davis and Curry. The problem was that the visitor’s locker room at 5/3 Arena is diagonal across the court from the media room, through a doorway, around a corner, down a flight of stairs, around a couple of more corners. It’s not close to anything. So, that makes life a little more difficult. By the time Davis emerged from his postgame meeting – maybe 10:30, 15 minutes to deadline – I walked and talked with him on his way to the media room for the presser.*

*I obviously couldn’t attend because I had to book it back down to the Providence locker room to talk to Curry before I could finish my first story. Normally, I wouldn’t have bothered to get Curry to talk. But I felt like I couldn’t carry a game story and a notebook with only coach quotes. I felt like I had to have another voice to, if nothing else, add length to my stories.

10:35: back to the Providence locker room for a quick 2-minute interview with Curry. 10:38: running/sprinting back to the media room. 10:40: back in my seat in the media room inserting a few quotes into my story. 10:48: hitting the Send button.

Three minutes late: not the best, but I can live with it. I ended up being a little later on the notebook – got it in at 11:23. The big problem was that it’s hard to interview a coach and jot down dependable, readable notes while fast-walking to the media room. So, I had to listen to my digital recording for quotes, and that took extra time that I had not allotted.

But it was exhilarating.

I had felt the sweats and the shaking fingers and the adrenaline. The deadline that I love and loath.

As a freelance writer, you don’t often get to experience that, and for a night, it was nice to feel like a real journalist again. For a night, I got to feel the rush.

Sometimes, I miss it.

3 responses to “The anatomy of a deadline story

  1. Why don’t you come back down to Georgia and take my deadline duties off of me. I won’t miss them now that UGA is so middlin’ it kicks off almost all of its football games at 7 p.m. or later.

  2. Excellent post, Josh. Great to see you again on Sunday.

  3. Scott, that’s kind of brutal. Those 1 p.m. kickoffs were the best.

    Lee, awesome to see you too. Don’t leave me hanging on that Mr. Bungle show.

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