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From the Newsroom: Anything can happen when you’re on call

As a member of the baby boom generation, I find myself going to an increasing number of retirement parties.

I was at one of these parties a week ago Friday at my local Mexican eatery when my cellphone started to blow up with messages. Using both hands, I carefully put down my giant margarita. Naturally, that unusual motion caused my friends, Karen and Stephen, to ask what was wrong.

“I’m on call,” I said mournfully, as Stephen slid his hand by mine for a warm tortilla chip.

“Oh, I hadn’t thought about how that might be part of your job,” Karen said. “What does that mean? You should write your column on that.” I am taking her up on her suggestion.

Way back in the good old days, like 15 years ago, we babysat the news. We staffed the newsroom with reporters, photographers and editors on weekday evenings, Saturdays and Sundays, just in case something happened.

But this is Clark County, where I am proud to say things are generally safe and orderly. So most of the time, these after-hours crews didn’t have much to do. I can personally attest to this, having worked a number of these boring shifts.

The Great Recession and subsequent news media depression changed our staffing. We employ fewer people than we used to, and with the advent of online news and social media, the demands on our time are greater.

So we have concentrated our resources. We have the majority work daytimes Mondays-Fridays, when most of the news happens. It’s allowed us to bring more and better stories and photos to our readers.

But what about the weekends? News could still happen. It sure did last weekend.

When there is no reporter on duty, we editors take turns being on call. This duty rotates weekly among five of us: Mark Bowder, Erin Middlewood, Jessica Prokop, Will Campbell and me.

On-call editors are expected to keep an eye out for major emergencies, breaking news and urgent news releases. In this world of email, push alerts and smartphone apps, that is easier to do than you might think. If we spot something that our readers would want to know right away, we can write a story and post it from anywhere there’s an internet connection.

So I was keeping my phone where I could see it, right next to the salsa. First there was a question about using a photo of investigators examining the wreckage of a horrible car crash on Highway 503. Was it too graphic for the front page?

I agreed with the metro editor, photographer and the page designer that it was not gross. And there were no identifying features in the photo, like a unique bumper sticker or license plate (at this time, we weren’t sure the victims’ families had been notified). In fact, I thought that the violent damage depicted in the photo spoke volumes about the dangers of a busy highway on a rainy day. We ran with it.

Later, at home, came the alert I had been anticipating and dreading: A person from Clark County had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.

By this time it was late; too late, in fact, for our Saturday paper. I wrote and posted a story at 10:44 p.m. and with the help of other editors sent a breaking news alert and got it onto our social media channels.

The drama continued Saturday morning. I updated the Highway 503 crash and the coronavirus story with details that came in overnight, then turned them over to our on-duty reporter, Katie Gillespie, and our coronavirus reporter, Wyatt Stayner, who had already agreed to come in on overtime if a local case was confirmed. I did stop by the office for a couple of hours in the evening to edit both stories, along with a bunch of additional police/fire news and two other Saturday stories Katie covered.

After all of that, I was prepared for the worst on Sunday. It stayed eerily quiet, although I kept checking. Late Sunday, I finally did get a coronavirus update, so I wrote and posted a story just before bedtime.

All of this was much more than what usually happens during an on-call weekend. I seem to be drawing the newsy weekends lately. The last time I was on call, Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crashed. So mark your calendars for next weekend, which is my next scheduled on-call weekend. Or perhaps leave town?


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