People sometimes ask what newspaper stories are hardest to write, and the easy answer usually involves the sheer mechanics of getting the thing done and sent to the office on time.
Even in this fabulous digital age, the demands of ink-on-newsprint production haven't changed all that much since Gutenberg essentially invented the daily newspaper nearly 600 years ago with a converted wine press.
So, when the Eagles are playing a night game and the assignment is to send a rational account of it for the first edition when the final whistle sounds, and the Hail Mary is in the air, and it is the Super Bowl, that can be difficult.
That's the answer you usually give, but it's not the right one. Not even close.
The hardest story to write — for someone with a newspaper path like mine, which is increasingly rare — is the one that confronts you a long way from packed stadiums and bright lights and important games.
It comes along when you are very young, just trying to figure things out, and you are covering a high school game, or a summer American Legion game, or some other game that has meaning only in the small town where your work, and will be chronicled only in the small newspaper that employs you. In all likelihood, the story itself will be read only by those who played the game and by their friends and family. For some of the players, it might well be the only time their names are ever mentioned in a newspaper sports story. Some will clip it out and keep it.
Here's what happens: A kid drops a fly ball in the ninth inning to lose the game. Or maybe a kid misses two free throws that would have won the game. Or a kid fumbles at the goal line. A kid. Just a kid in a small town playing a game that means something in that moment, and the moment might stay a lifetime with him in that town one way or the other.
Go ahead. Sit down and write the story that the kid and all his friends and his family will read the next morning. Your job is to cover the game and tell what happened. Do your job. Start by putting your own name at the top.
The thing is, there are ways to write the story that meet the standards of both professionalism and humanity, but no one nails it on the first try. Or the second or the third, perhaps. Eventually, you do learn how to do some things, although writing is a worthy wrestling opponent, and, if you are very lucky, all those newspaper lessons add up and there you are at the Super Bowl with the ball in the air and the final whistle sounding, convinced that your first edition story stinks on ice.
I've been thinking about small newspapers in Maryland the last couple of days, because that happened to be where and how I started. Everything I've been able to do in this business was made possible by the mistakes I made when absolutely no one in the greater world was paying attention to what I was writing about or how I was writing it. Not just the way to handle the dropped fly ball, but how a story should be built, how sentences and paragraphs should be constructed, what your voice should sound like and, most dangerous of all, whether to inject some humor now and again. Good God, it was mostly awful.
What I remember most about working in that little newsroom, though, is how people went about the job of producing the newspaper every day. There was an atmosphere of common purpose and pulling together and a dedication to the idea of making it good, not just good enough for the small town and its humble, local stories. It was almost magical to still be in the building at night and hear the rumble from the back as the presses began to roll.
The five people who were murdered at the Annapolis Capital on Thursday, from their descriptions, can be found in every newsroom of every size. They were archetypes of the business. I went to journalism school with one of them, Gerald Fischman, but I can't say I knew him. He took his path through our profession and I took mine. His led him to Thursday and the tragedy brought about by a sick mind obsessed with something that had been written in the paper.
People get shot every day. They get shot in schools and concert halls and movie theaters and sitting at a sidewalk café in Paris. Every loss is a tragedy, and that is the only undisputed part of those events after all the arguments about weapon control and mental health and security are exhausted.