- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

Terror in Madrid

When a story as big as last week’s Spanish terror attacks breaks in Baghdad or Jerusalem, most major news organizations already have their people in place, set to respond within minutes.

But Madrid, while a major European capital, is normally a quiet news town — stable, peaceful and prosperous — and therefore home to relatively few foreign correspondents.

That meant everybody had to scramble when the news broke Thursday morning that well over 100 people had been killed and hundreds more injured in a wave of bomb attacks on railway cars and platforms.

Congratulations to Keith Richburg of the Washington Post, who made it to Madrid from his regular post in Paris in time to file a main news story and a color story. The New York Times appears to have gotten lucky in that Elaine Sciolino was already in Madrid for a pre-election interview with Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.

Paul Martin, a regular contributor to our pages, had the idea of rushing from his London home to Bilbao, the principal city in Spain’s Basque country, whose locally based insurgents were the most obvious suspects in the blasts. Unfortunately, he got to the airport too late for the only available flight.

That left us, like countless other newspapers, radio and television stations, to rely on the wire services, which maintain permanent bureaus in every major capital and do much of the grunt work that finds its way into everyone else’s stories.

At a newspaper, we have the luxury of sitting back throughout the day, watching as authorities sort out conflicting bits of information and then deciding late in the afternoon exactly what we want to say.

The wire agencies can’t do that. With thousands of clients spread through most of the world’s time zones, they must have a ready-to-publish story prepared as quickly as possible and keep it up to date with new developments for the rest of the day.

Multiple leads

In the old days of 300-baud teletype transmitters, when it would take several minutes for a long news story to print out in client newsrooms, the agencies used an elaborate system of new leads, adds, subs and inserts to keep the stories up to date.

The stories were always fashioned with the background and anything unlikely to change near the bottom of the story so that fresh developments could be filed with a new lead that would pick up into the previous story, say at the fifth or ninth paragraph. Only the new material had to be retransmitted.

Similarly, casualty figures would be kept together in one or two paragraphs, so that if authorities announced an increase in the death toll, it was necessary only to “sub,” or resend that small block of copy.

Modern data transmission technology has made it possible to resend the entire story if even a single word has changed. This means client newspapers can wait until deadline and then snatch a complete story without having to cobble together all the bits and pieces.

Wire reporters, however, still tend to organize their material in the old way because it makes it easier for them and their editors to update the stories quickly, with each new version labeled sequentially as a new “lead.”

The Associated Press, for instance, filed a total of 33 leads on Thursday before ending that news cycle and beginning a new one. They filed six more leads before midnight Washington time.

Reuters news agency was a little more measured in its use of leads, filing only 15 versions — or what it calls “updates” — of its story over the course of the day, while offering considerably more sidebars.

For all their effort, the wire reporters often toil anonymously. Many papers will have done what we did, compiling the most interesting from each of them and printing the whole story under the simple heading, “From combined dispatches.”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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