Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: Election night deadlines? No problem

At the risk of sounding like a fuddy-duddy, election night in the newsroom ain’t what it used to be.

Make no mistake, it’s still a big job.

On Monday, we set up our Wednesday front page, back page and four pages inside to hold the election coverage. Designers strung bunting across Page One and drew boxes for each story, leaving room for headlines and photos.

On Tuesday, the managing editor distributed his “Election night 2014” spreadsheet. It listed the 11 stories we would write or take from news services that night.

For each story, he’d noted which races it would cover, the assigned reporter, editor and copy editor, the length, the page it was assigned to and whether it would have a photo.

He set deadlines staggered every 10 minutes or so between 9:15 p.m. and 10:40 p.m., with the least complicated stories coming in first.

Meet your length, meet your deadline, he told reporters. That’s the only way we’ll make the ultimate print deadline of 11:30 p.m.

The tricky part is that nothing happens until 8 p.m. when the polls close.

We cheat a bit by having reporters “pre-write.” A 10-inch election story, for instance, contains roughly five inches of background about the race. Writing that in advance leaves only the vote count and candidate quotes to gather on deadline.

We also have the West Coast advantage of getting most national election results early in the evening. By 8 p.m. or so, it was clear Republicans would win a majority in the U.S. Senate.

The county auditor released her first vote count shortly after 8 p.m. Tuesday night. Our computer script scraped the county and state websites and immediately posted results at thenewstribune.com.

By 8:30 p.m. we’d posted full stories online and began fleshing them out for the print edition. As noted in the copy desk overnight report, “thanks to both good planning and a good crew,” we sent the last pages by 11:16 – beating deadline by 14 minutes.

While that’s enough to get some adrenaline flowing, it’s easy-peasy compared to the rush of election nights past, before computers brought the vote count to us and before the state strung out returns with ballots dribbling in for days.

Getting a vote count nowadays is as easy as typing the auditor’s URL into your Web browser. When results come in, it’s eerily quiet in the newsroom with all reporter heads down reading their computer screens.

At a small daily in Indiana where I worked in the mid-1990s, we sent our lowest-ranking reporter to the county courthouse on election night to watch the results come in. Cellphones weren’t widely used then, so he ran back and forth all night shouting updates to the newsroom.

The bigger election night letdown is that we almost never can call the races.

Back when votes were cast and counted on Election Day, we sometimes had to chance declaring a winner (and risk being wrong in the morning), but most results were known.

We’d spot upsets that forced us to move stories around on deadline. We’d shout back and forth across the copy desk to be sure everyone was following along. We’d huddle behind a page designer, brainstorming for just the right headline to capture the mood of the election, rushing to push the button on time.

Washington’s vote-by-mail requires only that ballots are postmarked by Election Day so it takes days of drip, drip, drip vote counting before some races are called.

Until the past couple elections, county auditors at least pushed for two or three rounds of vote counts through the evening. We’d get a first batch at 8:30, a second around 10 and maybe another one before deadline. By night’s end, they’d counted the bulk of votes received.

The custom now is to release one round of results around 8:30 p.m. with a second update and then shut it down for the night. We don’t get more results for almost 24 hours.

Yes, that makes our job easier. But it’s not nearly as much fun.

A little adrenaline rush is good for a newsroom.

This year, at least we called one big race — the gun background check measure that won by a large margin. We got to switch lead stories on deadline to give that the big headline. Whoop-ee!

Our managing editor would point out that we also complicate election night by having the same copy desk in Tacoma also produce all the pages for The Olympian.

On Tuesday, the crew filled five pages with election stories for Olympia by 10:33 p.m. (just three minutes past deadline), then completed the TNT pages in less than an hour.

It all went smoothly and calmly. For that, I’m thankful.

And we still have football Friday nights — when we slam in coverage of two dozen high school games between their final whistle and our final deadline — to make us break a sweat now and then.