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Barbara Lombardo of Saratoga Springs, NY, is a journalism adjunct at University at Albany and retired executive editor of The Saratogian, The Record and the Community News. Follow her on Twitter @Barb_Lombardo.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

When It's OK to Yell "Fire"

This morning, on my first day back to work after several days off, my cell phone buzzed before 8 a.m. from a caller identified as "Frank" -- my boss.
Hoo-boy, welcome back, what now?
"There's a fire in town," the publisher said. "A big one."
In that instant, vacation mode evaporated and the almost shameful thrill of a breaking news story started the journalism adrenalin pumping.
I called the police station to find out what was happening. "Can't talk to you, we're really busy," said a polite dispatcher. "Give me someone in charge," I asked.
When an officer came on, I identified myself and said I had heard there was a fire on Beekman Street. "153," he replied (which turned out to be Grand, not Beekman, but close enough). "You should be able to see the smoke out your window."
The first news person I tried to call was Rick Gargiulo, the chief photographer who is also the daytime photographer. I left messages on his home phone, cell phone and office phone -- discovering shortly thereafter that he already was at the in-town fire, went from there to a fire in Burnt Hills, and then doubled back to photograph a school event to go with a story by Ann Marie French.
Next I woke up Ed Burke, in case Rick didn't respond.
Then it dawned on me to call our Web editor, Steve Shoemaker, who I caught running out the newsroom door, equipped with the video camera, still camera and a pad. He covered the story as a modern-day multi-media reporter, interviewing, writing, videotaping and then coming back to the office to write up his story and load the video. (Check it out!!!)
With coverage set, I called the Circulation Department, where the tip for the fire originated, to thank them and let them know they shouldn't hesitate to call me at home for breaking news. Customer Service Rep Stephany Quevillon had heard about it from a driver, and when she didn't know whether a photographer was available she hustled out to the scene herself and snapped a couple of shots with flames on her cell phone camera. What great teamwork. (Maybe I can steal her from the circ department.)
The other night, on the prodding of my son, I started watching "The Wire." In one scene a handful of jaded employees of the Baltimore Sun are standing in the newsroom, looking out the window at smoke from a distant (but not too distant) fire. The city editor steps over, and, disgusted, said what I was thinking: "What kind of people see a fire and just stand there."
This morning, I was proud to be working with people who recognize a story and jump on it.


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