Friday, October 19, 2012

A personal story: Black Monday, the day one daily newspaper editor got their first lesson in New Media

Today is the 25th anniversary of Black Monday, the day the stock market crashed, with the Dow fell over 500 points. For many investors, Black Monday was their first experience with an actual stock panic.

But, for me, that day taught me a lot about news editors – at least as they worked then – and why newsrooms need to change in a dramatic way.

On October 19, 1987 I was working at the Copley newspaper in Santa Monica, California. The Santa Monica Evening Outlook, as it was known then, was one of those rare bird, an afternoon paper in an era of morning deliver. Soon Copley would change delivery to mornings and the paper would be called simply the Outlook.

If you don't recall those days in 1987, let me briefly set the scene: Ronald Reagan had been reelected in 1984 thanks to a recovering economy. The economy continued to recover, though by 1986 things were slowing down – a "soft landing" as economists like to say. But the stock market was booming and, of course, a correction was due.
On August 25, 1987, the market hit an all-time high. But on October 14, the Dow dropped 95.46 points, at that time the biggest drop ever, in terms of points. That Friday the Down fell again. Traders entered the new week leery.

California is, of course, on Pacific time. So by the time I arrived at work at the Evening Outlook that morning the stock market had already opened. Asian markets were down big, partly due to news that the U.S. had bombed some Iranian oil platforms int he Persian Gulf as retaliation for a previous missile attack on a U.S. flagged ship – some things never change, I guess.

Before leaving my car I got an update on the market, things look bleak, with stocks down sharply. But sharply, in those days, meant 10, 20, 30 points. No one was prepared for what would follow.

I entered the newspaper where I was classified sales manager and immediately walked across the floor of the newspaper to the editor's office. The editor was in an informal meeting and noticed me, assuming I would simply say hello. Us ad types simply didn't talk too much to the editors. But this morning I said something, that at first probably sound cryptic: "you're in for a big news day today, I see. Have you been checking the markets?" I left without waiting for a response.

But I am absolutely sure I know what his response was because I later asked some of the news staff: he turned to the reporter in his office and said "what the hell was that about" and returned to his conversation.

When I reached my office and began my day I had a feeling that day would be, well, interesting. Sometimes you just know.

The closeness of the offices at the Outlook, combined with the fact that the ad and editorial staffs were housed on a single floor, meant that one couldn't casually listen to a radio or watch a television while at work. In fact, the newsroom was completely shut out from other media because of this. Computer terminals, in those days, were for inputting copy, of course. Everything was a "front end system" that was closed off to the work. A decade would pass before computers hooked up to the Internet would find their way onto the desks of reporters.

By mid-morning I had decided that my curiosity was killing me, what was going on in the markets. I walked out of the office and out of the building and went to my car to hear the news on the radio. The markets were not leading the news, but the stock reporter on KABC was clearly agitated. The markets are down, this is definitely unusual, he said. He sounded as if he was trying to get the attention of his own newsroom and that the only way to do it was to say it on air.

I returned to the office and realized I should say something. I walked across the room and again entered the editor's office. "Is the market crash going to lead the afternoon paper?" I asked. "That's yesterday's news" he replied. "No it's not," I said. The market is down another XX points" I replied.

At that point in the day, the markets were down sharply, but not in free fall. But by lunch time the markets turned and things got ugly. Down 100, down 200. It all happened so fast.

Analysts looking at the crash of Black Monday put the blame on programmed trading that made the fall accelerate throughout the day.

But the end of lunch I again went to the editor's office and simply said "300 points". To my shock, the editor replied "300?" He had never taken anything I had said seriously and had no clue that the market was in free fall.

Suddenly he awoke and from that point on was able to get the newsroom in gear. By the time the market closed that Black Monday the Dow had fallen 508 points. If the same percentage fall were to occur today, it would translate into a decline of over 3000 points. That one day the market lose 22.61 percent of its value.

That day was also the day that my editor at the Outlook learned a valuable lesson: news can come from anywhere, and that a newsroom shut out from other media is not a modern newsroom. Within one month several televisions were installed in the newsroom and suddenly our editor was out of his office talking to staff other than the reporters. Something important had changed.

NYT front page on Tuesday, our paper had the news in Monday's paper.
I left that paper the next year. The management at Copley had reneged on some promises to me and so I went to a daily paper in Northern California. In 1998 Copley closed the Outlook, unable to make a go of it in one of the wealthiest areas of Los Angeles. Eventually what was left of the Copley L.A. chain was sold off to Dean Singleton, who couldn't make a go of it either and now his MediaNews Group is owned by a private equity company.

Many people like to talk about the effect of the Internet on newspapers, place the blame for the medium's decline on the web. But newspapers have had to adapt to changing technologies and changing environments many times in their history. In the mid to late 80s newspapers began to realize that they could not sit back and watch radio and television be the only source of instant news.

That afternoon the front page was all about the crash. The newsroom had recovered and that day's paper, when delivered to residents returning home from work, had all the news they needed about what had gone on that day.

For me, that was the start of the New Media era.