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Throwback to another close election: Florida editor reflects on the difference between 2000 and 2020

Everyone
knows the famous line. It’s screamed on TV and in the movies by breathless
editors who have news that will change the world.

“Stop
the presses!”

We
felt that drama 20 years ago in the Miami Herald newsroom. Bush vs. Gore.
Election Night 2000. Florida.

But
first, we had to stop the trucks. They were about to hit the road with stacks
of newspapers shouting “Gore wins” in the early editions bound for
distant reaches of the state. The news changed, and the headline needed to
change. So it became BUSH WINS IT.

A
few hours later, as the final edition deadline passed, we learned Bush didn’t
win it. Not yet anyway.

Now
we had to stop the presses.

I
bolted from my desk to make sure the foreman got the word. I arrived
breathless, from the whiplash of running the copy desk and running down three
flights of stairs from newsroom to pressroom. I approached the press boss as
the floor-to-ceiling machines rumbled. I had news that would change the world.

We
quickly replaced the page with a new headline, NOT OVER YET. We could have used
that one for this election, 20 years later.

Back
then, it was butterfly ballots, hanging chads, days of counting, a legal
assault.

Now,
it’s COVID-19, mail-in ballots, days of counting, a legal assault.

For
journalists like me working behind the scenes, 2020 may sound all-too familiar.
But it isn’t. The pace and expectations are far different now in our newsroom.

Except
for that mad dash to the pressroom, the 2000 election seemed to unfold in slow
motion. The story plot moved glacially each day. Reporters arrived and camped
out at the canvassing boards to monitor the counting. Day after day, week after
week. The reporting was done on a newspaper schedule, with stories filed toward
the end of the day, just in time to make the final edition. No Twitter jolts to
worry about. No continually updating homepage. Digital was an afterthought in
2000, with the online team stashed away somewhere, maybe on another floor,
scraping stories from the newspaper pages to post in the dead of night.

Fast-forward
to this year’s campaign and election.

Reporters
and editors need to keep a finger on the “post” button 24/7, all
while getting bombarded with conflicting information and disinformation. This
is no slow-melting glacier. It’s more like Niagara Falls, with tweets flying
like missiles.

While
we prepared for possible unrest on the streets, assigning journalists to a
quick-response team just in case, we also have been told to take it slow. Our
editor reminds us to be careful with how we handle what we’re hearing. That
takes reporting, not just reacting.

All the while, deadline is … well, deadline is right now. And the focus isn’t on that one big headline at the end of the day. It’s on the many headlines on stories and blogs posted online through the day and into the night, headlines that must grab the attention of Google searches and social scrollers.

COVID
has complicated things, of course. We can’t be everywhere we need to be. A
local race in the Florida Keys, for instance, was so close that it needed to
undergo a recount. But because of coronavirus restrictions, we couldn’t be in
the same room as the elections staff and canvassing board. The supervisor set
up a TV, chairs and table outside the front doors, everything under a portable
tent, to protect observers from the daily dousing in South Florida. And on
Election Night, we didn’t only send reporters to precincts to cover in-person
voters, but also to mail drop-off boxes to capture those avoiding the inside of
polling places.

Unlike
2000, Florida is not at the forefront of the counting drama this year. The
state was called for Trump on Election Night. Most local races had clear
winners and losers. Ballots didn’t get lost and machines didn’t break down.
There were no confusing ballot designs or hanging chads, those bits of
cardboard that didn’t get punched all the way through 20 years ago. Floridians
now fill in bubbles with a pen, just like a high school test taker, with
ballots fed into machines for scanning.  

Yet
not everything is different. Readers are still turning to us to make sense of
elections. With that comes thoughtful analysis of what is happening. In Miami,
for instance, we took a step back from all the noise to look at why President
Trump did as well as he did in Miami and across Florida. Another story
explained how Joe Biden helped Democrats win the county mayor’s race, resetting
local politics.Those are stories typically not aired on local TV or cable news.

While
the uptempo pace has changed for us, our purpose has not. Reporters are still
digging, analyzing and breaking news. But just like that long-ago newspaper
headline that almost got out of our building, one wrong move can destroy our
credibility. There’s pressure to be fast and first. We can no longer wait until
the end of the day to publish a story. But we also need to tap the brakes as we
check and confirm. It’s hard. It’s tiring. It’s crucial.

There
will be no running into the pressroom this year for a “Stop the
Presses” moment. We no longer have our own pressroom, and my priority
these days is digital.

But
I’ll always savor the chance of saying that iconic line. It sure beats,
“Delete the tweet.”

Jeff Kleinman is the day editor at
the Miami Herald. In 2000, he was copy desk chief.