The Deadline Cometh

Wrote this column on a Tuesday morning because I thought we had some opinion page space to fill in the Times. We did not. It might run sometime. It might not.

This column is written on deadline. It must be written very soon, or it will not exist.

Newspapers, like the one you hold in your hands, still have deadlines. On Tuesday here at the Times and Finger Lakes Community Newspapers office, the work reaches a focused pitch as 5 p.m. comes closer and our 10 papers must be sent to the printer in Williamsport, Pa.

How sharp my editor’s words for my late copy will be today, I don’t yet know. It will depend on the other writers, freelancers mostly, all of whom have talent and knowledge in their field. Most of whom are prone to sometimes turn in stories that are too long or too short, missing a photo, that need a fact-check on some arcane reference or Latin phrase.

Or the question will come: “Do you have anything else laying around?” A fresh half-page has opened up, demanding fresh copy, and we have no wire service to provide filler. Rewriting a press release is a last resort. So an offhand meeting remark by some official on an in-progress project gets a follow-up call, or at least a close interpretation of its supporting documents, and 400 words on the subject appear in the paper.

The reporter must be grateful for deadlines, for without them, none of his work might exist. What us clock-driven moderns call procrastination is a specialty of his. An idea, a phrase, stored in the dark closet of his mind is safe in there. Exposed to light via print, it becomes everyone’s possession. Better for the idea to rot in obscurity than be found banal or skipped over by the reader. Better to leave it on the shelf than to open the door one night and find the hoard empty, with only canned conventional wisdom left over to heat up for the readers. Only hacks of the Murdoch or Sulzberger line can stomach serving that cancerous stuff for long.

Anyway, some procrastination is good for creativity, says one of those recent studies that confirm our vices which the American press is so good at disseminating. Sometimes procrastination even pushes one to clean the house, or take a look at bills going unpaid, an activity which quickly puts one back to real work. And whether procrastination, “time-wasting,” is a vice depends on whether the feeling behind it is one of contemplation or acedia – apathy, to be “without care.” The difference is between the olive-munching Greeks speculating on the nature of existence, and that modern cry “I’m bored – give me something, anything, to do.”

Our service agencies at their best can only honestly answer modern longing with things to do. The progressive ones go beyond suggesting “get a job, any job,” but their mandate to keep everyone safe and healthy, perfectly normalized, does not include an instruction manual to make active, engaged, reaching minds. Trained to go to work and then be entertained for generations now, it’s no wonder that the American has no idea what to do with off hours. There are so many hours, with only a few lucky ones still getting 40 hours of repetitive tasks to do for decent pay these days.

The deadline is a holdout from more industrial days, when one’s work might have been hard and exploitable, but at least you knew when you had to work. Most of my colleagues’ deadline pressures have dissipated into the 24/7 news cycle, that terrible rolling deadline, when any happening, anywhere, needs written up immediately to capture web traffic that no one has yet figured out how to make pay.

There’s more to say, but this column must end. Two more stories to write today.