Monday, May 02, 2005

The Last Temptation of Mitch (and Rich)

Mitch Albom is back on the job after getting his wrist slapped for making up information in a column. Since there's been plenty of (justified) criticism of Albom, I'm going to fight the urge to join the pile here. But I am pretty sure that part of Albom's problem was that he sold his soul to the Deadline Devil.
Whether you're a best-selling author and radio/TV personality like Albom or a guy trying to write for a blog, you run up against deadlines.
A lot of newspaper writing is done on the fly. An event happens one night and as soon as it's done -- sometimes before it's done -- you have to start crafting something that will make sense about the event for the next day's paper. It happens in news, in sports and in entertainment -- including TV.
I've written many times under those conditions, about TV coverage of baseball playoffs, presidential speeches, big-time series finales that have not been made available for preview, reality-show conclusions -- and regular reality-show episodes. As long as local singer Scott Savol is on ''American Idol,'' I know that on Wednesday night I have to come up with a column for the next day's newspaper about what and how he did.
Now, this is a bit different than Albom's transgression. He wrote on a Friday for Sunday publication, and described a Saturday event that hadn't happened yet -- and, it turned out, did not turn out the way he described it.
But the conditions are similar. You have to write something for the next day, and most of the time you cannot wait until the last minute to start crafting the piece. The newspaper is expecting your copy ASAP, after all.
So you start filling in details of the early part of the event before you get to the end. With ''American Idol,'' my column about the Wednesday results show also includes a recap of what happened on Tuesday's performance show. (I have been writing same-night postings about the Tuesday shows for this blog, but not for the paper.) That tells people who missed Tuesday's show what set up the results on Wednesday -- and it's something that I can write well before the results are announced. Then I just need to top it off with the results and maybe a note or two about them.
Similarly, when ''The Bachelorette'' finished its last round, I began by writing up some of the background and information from earlier part of the telecast. That gave me a foundation. Then I could just cap it with the actual results.
Here's where it gets tricky. Sometimes you think you can anticipate the results. On an earlier ''Idol,'' I expected that Scott would survive and that Anwar would get the boot, so I roughed out a column that way.
But -- since I knew I was guessing -- I waited until I had seen the actual results before sending the piece on for publication.
You have to remember when something's a guess. Last week, I guessed that Scott would survive and that Vonzell would be eliminated, and roughed that out. Then it turned out that Vonzell was sticking around. Hasty rewriting ensued, followed by more rewriting to add that it was Constantine who had been voted off.
One of the most unnerving cases of this came with ''The Bachelorette.''
Jen, you will recall, rejected one of the two finalists relatively early in the show. That made it appear she was picking the other guy. This was important, because my deadline was very near the end of the show. So I started writing that she had picked the other guy, and everything seemed to point to that conclusion. When the show presented a song the guy had written for Jen, it looked as if we were headed toward the big romantic clinch.
Remember what happened then?
She didn't pick that guy, either. Jen decided to take none of the above. And my nice, tidy piece about Jen finding love needed a major overhaul.
Still, having a column in place that needs fixing is often better than starting from scratch shortly before an editor is looking for your copy. So writers try to take shortcuts.
But the crucial thing when you do that is to never think you're smart enough to predict the future. You guess, sure. But you don't file your story until you've actually seen what happens.
See, you can even learn things from ''The Bachelorette.''


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