Pressed for Time: When Big News Breaks on the Other Side of the World

Pressed for Time: When Big News Breaks on the Other Side of the World

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International breaking news events, like the Easter Sunday suicide bombings in Sri Lanka, pose some of the toughest logistical challenges for Times journalists: getting correspondents to the scene, coordinating coverage from afar and marshaling additional resources — all while under intense deadline pressure.

But perhaps the biggest, and least obvious, obstacle is the large time difference from New York when events unfold halfway around the world. How do editors plan digital and print coverage when it’s one day in their time zone and the next day where the news is breaking?

This temporal quagmire arose most recently with the mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand — which, at the time, was 17 hours ahead of New York. (Sri Lanka, which is nine and a half hours ahead, hasn’t posed quite the same scheduling challenges.)

As the newsroom in New York approached its print deadlines in the early evening, the coverage planned for the paper was already being pushed forward by half a day’s worth of reporting in New Zealand. Editors had to find a way to fit everything into the report.

“I’ve done lots of big stories around the world,” Michael Slackman, The Times’s International editor, said in the aftermath of the attacks. “I’ve never had a situation like this before with a 17-hour time difference.”

Challenging time differences, which arise most frequently with breaking stories in Asia, require editors to figure out how to serve a global audience reading online and in print in very different parts of the world.

Susan Chira, the International editor from 2004 to 2011, recently recalled the issues that a 13-hour difference posed in covering the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan in 2011. Nearly every important development would happen late at night or early in the morning in New York, when the paper was closing. On top of that, the Middle East was in the throes of the Arab Spring.

“It was the most challenging experience of my eight-year tenure,” she said.

Editors in New York would be staggering to the print editions’ finish line with the latest unrest in the Middle East as the people in that region went to sleep. Then the first morning news conferences in Japan on the nuclear disaster would begin.

“Literally a government was falling in one country and we were learning there was a nuclear meltdown in another,” Ms. Chira said.

The latest information from Japan sometimes completely changed the story that editors had worked on throughout the day in New York, just as the paper was going to print in the evening.

The events at Fukushima contributed to a newsroomwide discussion about dispersing editors around the world. Joe Kahn, who became the International editor after Ms. Chira and is now the managing editor, helped lead an effort to build out a 24-7 global news operation, which is anchored by editing hubs in London and Hong Kong. Editors can now hand off stories from one continent to the next as their local days wrap up.

One of the “key missions” of that effort, Mr. Kahn said, was to do a better job of producing important news about global affairs before readers in the United States wake up, while also serving international readers who want the news when it is relevant to them.

But time differences aren’t logistically difficult just for editors. The correspondents on the ground are continually writing new articles and feeding fresh information to their editors in different parts of the world.

The Times’s Australia bureau chief, Damien Cave, who went to New Zealand after the attacks, said one of the main challenges of that story was figuring out when to file. One night he went to bed at 3 a.m. after finishing an article and woke up three hours later to file a second by 9:30 a.m., in time to be edited before the print deadline in New York.

While The Times is a digital-first publication, print is still an important consideration. When big news breaks over the weekend, getting a story into the Sunday paper, the first deadline for which is Saturday at noon in New York, can be a challenge, “especially when your reporter is deep asleep” on the other side of the world, Mr. Slackman said.

But generally, the aim was to publish in the evening in New Zealand, when it was morning in New York — to have a thoughtful, well-written article with the latest news rather than to scramble to get something in print at the last minute.

“In terms of workload and lack of sleep, that was probably the biggest breaking news event I’d dealt with for an extended period of time,” said Mr. Cave, who has reported major stories from the Middle East, Latin America and the United States. “A lot of it had to do with the time difference.”

Fukushima proved to be the toughest breaking news story that Hiroko Tabuchi, a reporter formerly based in Tokyo, had ever covered. She remembers sleeping in three-hour increments during its most pivotal moments.

One day, just before the print deadline in New York, she had to make a call on what a Japanese spokesman meant when he said workers at the nuclear plant had taken refuge. Other outlets were reporting that they had left the premises — which would have made the situation much more dangerous — but Ms. Tabuchi thought they had only pulled back from the areas of the plant closest to the sea.

Her editor supported her but joked, “If we’re wrong, we’re both going to be fired.”

They stood firm and were right: Official reports later verified that the plant had never been abandoned.

Getting out the most important information in these situations comes down to the close collaboration between reporters and editors.

Or as Mr. Cave put it, “the teamwork necessary when breaking news is on the other side of the world.”

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