- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 4, 2002

Time elements

Journalism schools famously teach aspiring reporters and editors about the "five Ws," stressing that every news story should answer the questions: "Who? What? Where? When? and Why?"

The fourth of those, the answer to "When?" is generally known in the trade as the time element, and in an industry where we compete fiercely not only with other newspapers but also with radio and television, every effort is made to use that time element to give our stories a sense of immediacy.

The great majority of stories are written for publication in the newspaper the following morning; the time element, therefore, will tell the reader that such and such happened "yesterday." Almost invariably, that word will appear in the first, or lead, paragraph to alert readers that they are getting the latest available news.

Occasionally, we are a day late with a story because it had to be held back for space reasons, because the information did not become public immediately or sometimes because we flat-out missed it.

When we can, we will lead on some aspect of the story that does allow us to use a "yesterday" time element; for instance, we might say in our lead, " according to a government report that became public yesterday."

Sometimes that isn't possible. We might, for example, send an intern to cover a seminar on foreign aid to Africa but have no room to publish the story until the second day afterward. In that case, we will write a lead with no time element at all - "More aid to Africa is needed, a diplomat said" - and then "bury" the time element in the third or fourth paragraph - " Mr. Smith said at a conference on Tuesday."

At the other end of the spectrum, we occasionally get to use the most coveted of time elements - "today."

In the era when afternoon newspapers were common, the "today" time element was standard; workers heading home from the office would be able to read about events that occurred that morning. But with most modern papers closing their pages around midnight or a little later to have the issue of that day on readers' doorsteps at dawn, it has become rare indeed.

The night editor's role

International reporters and editors, however, get a break from the time zones. When we are closing our pages at midnight in Washington, it is already noon the next day in Tokyo, meaning that early-breaking stories from Asia can be published on the same day here.Finding these stories is a job for the night foreign editor - one of the most important and least appreciated jobs we have.

Thanks to those same time zones - which make it midnight in Paris when it is 7 p.m. here - most of us can head home in time for dinner with reasonable confidence that the stories we have prepared for the paper for the next day will stand up without need of change.But we leave one person to staff the desk until the paper closes a little after midnight - late enough to get in most of the final sports scores - to keep an eye on the news wires in case of developments.

Most evenings that person is Gus Constantine, a veteran of the old Washington Star who has been with The Times since its inception 20 years ago.

Having lived and worked in Asia and followed the region closely all his life, Mr. Constantine was paying particular attention in any case to the travels through the region last week by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

So it was no surprise that he jumped on an item that moved late Tuesday evening - Wednesday morning in Asia - saying Mr. Powell had met in Brunei with his North Korean counterpart. We already had known such a meeting was possible, but we had no idea when it might take place.

The lead of the item, filed by the French news service Agence France-Presse, said, "Secretary of State Colin L. Powell met North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun today in the highest-level contact between the two countries in two years, the State Department said."

Very neatly, the AFP reporter and Mr. Constantine had managed to tell the readers what had happened, explain why it mattered, and given it a sense of immediacy with the "today" time element.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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