Mary Ann Hogan
Chips Quinn Writing Coach
The shuttle Columbia disaster happened on a Saturday, my regular day off. I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I have called the newspaper to see if they needed me? I’m still an intern and don’t want to seem presumptuous. But a bunch of colleagues worked around the clock covering local angles. Any advice, in case there’s a next time? — Not Sure in North Texas
Dear Not Sure,
Very often during a disaster or a huge breaking story, reporters simply fall into place, whether it’s the weekend, their day off or a national holiday. They know that major breaking news (especially when there’s a skeleton staff) requires as many willing and able hands as possible. Your role in covering such a story will reflect your experience with the newspaper, so don’t expect to write for the front page. But even answering the phones or running errands on a big-news day can be satisfying, because you’re part of a team in the larger service of the story.
Sometimes — this is true of San Francisco newspapers covering earthquakes and Florida newspapers covering hurricanes and the space program — newsrooms have disaster plans. When they do, they have a guide for notifying senior staff, organizing coverage and keeping news employees safe. Ask your supervisor if you should have come in without being asked. Ask if your newsroom has a disaster plan, and if you could read it. In fact, reading your newspaper’s disaster plan would be a good thing to do on your first day on the job. You might as well get ready. In this business, there’s always a next time.