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Writing Katrina

By RD Heldenfels Published: September 5, 2005

I got an e-mail from a reader the other day eager to hear my thoughts about Geraldo Rivera's recent actions on Fox News. Unfortunately, while I have read about the thing the reader referred to, I did not see it.

As I've said before, television does not stop (because it chronicles a world that never stops). During a disaster like Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, there is more to see than one set of eyes can collect, more than one brain can absorb. Even if you watch just the three major news channels -- CNN, Fox News and MSNBC -- that's 72 hours of coverage for every 24 hours a day.

During some big events, such as election nights, I used to set up three or more TV sets, with VCRs running on others in the house, to collect as much information as possible. I do that rather less, because then you still have to be able to go back through the tape -- or, nowadays, back up the DVR -- to catch something. Now I'm more likely to have a single TV set on, and to flip constantly among the channels, settling on something interesting for a bit, then moving on. But sometimes I still employ multiple sets. At work, I have two TV sets nearby and will often have both running on different channels -- or one taping a single channel while I use the other for flipping -- and taking notes as I go along.

But in all of that, I'm still going to miss some things. Or I'm going to be watching, taking mental notes, but not committing a lot to memory. Which brings me to Friday.

Late that morning, one of my bosses emerged from a meeting with the news that the Beacon Journal was going to run an extra section about Katrina on Sunday, and they wanted a piece about the TV coverage. This led to some grumbling on my part. All right, more than some grumbling. I had already had a busy week, had plans for later in the day, and was trying to get ahead on a project for the following week. In addition, although I had been keeping an eye on Katrina coverage off and on for several days, and had written some about it for this blog, I had not been collecting notes for a big piece of the kind being sought.

But writing for a newspaper is largely about reacting quickly to events, and writing just as quickly about them. Deadlines can be fluid. On Tuesday, I had been asked if I had something that would work as a feature for Thursday. I had an interview in hand I had been meaning to write, so I went ahead and wrote it. On Wednesday, I was asked if a story planned for the following week could be written instead for Sunday; I had already done the interview for it, and even mucked about some with the text, so I just shifted gears, did a little extra research and got the story written on Thursday.

I couldn't ignore this story. It had been a big event on the news channels for days. The broadcast networks were increasing their attention on it. And, as far as the Beacon Journal is concerned, I am the TV guy.

I started piecing things together while taking care of an errand -- picking up my son after a short day at school. As we drove home, I had him scribble down some words and phrases, notations of things I wanted to be sure to include in my column. By the time I was back at work, I had the rough shape of a column in my head, and it didn't take a huge amount of time to write.

But, once again, television did not stop. (Neither did the news, as the looming changes in the Supreme Court have demonstrated.) I was writing on Friday for Sunday publication. Things could change in between. Fortunately, since the section I was writing for would not be put together until Saturday, I had the flexibility to make changes.

And I did. Some adjustments were made later Friday, as the details began to emerge about a fund-raising special to air on the broadcast networks. My wife and I had a social commitment Friday night, but before we went out, I set a DVR to record more Katrina-related programming, especially a fund-raising special airing on NBC that night.

On the special, Kanye West took President Bush to task (as well as criticizing the media's post-Katrina coverage and complaining about some of the relief effort). Learning about the incident later, I looked it up on the recording I had made. Later Saturday, I dubbed the recording onto a tape, took it to the office and made some more changes in my Sunday column to include what West did.

You can find the final version on I was pretty happy with the first version, and stuck to its basic points through all the rewriting. I could have made more changes, of course. There were things I have been thinking about that I didn't get to in that piece, like MSNBC's onscreen graphic counting the days and hours since Katrina, which I may visit later.

But every time I made a change, I lost a little of my enthusiasm for the piece. Not for what was in it (since I was determined to include the West incident, for example) but for the mechanics of it. When I'm happy with a column, it's like seeing a shiny new car for the first time; if I then have to tinker with it, I get hung up on the mechanics, so focused on the parts that the car as a whole isn't as interesting.

Of course, the good thing about newspapering (and especially about blogging) is that soon I'll start work on another car.

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