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Call Rewrite! 

The view from the pressroom

Wednesday, Sep 4 2002
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THE HEADWATERS OF MOST LOS ANGELES COUNTY police reporting is a very small pond known as the Norman "Jake" Jacoby Press Room. Named for a legendary City News Service police reporter who retired a decade ago, it sits to the rear of the first floor of Parker Center, the 40-year-old, six-story LAPD "Glass House" headquarters downtown.

Most of its well-worn furnishings date back at least to the Korean War, and it reeks like a vacant lockerroom. It is here where most of the city's stories of misfortune -- crime, fire and other disasters -- bubble up, where the first draft of L.A. daily journalism's "first draft of history" often gets written. That's the draft that distills language like "the officers proceeded relative to the location" into "the officers went to the house." And "Alighting from her vehicle, the officer related her suspicions to her superiors telephonically" to "the officer got out her car and phoned headquarters." The result is usually a basic bundle of short narrative -- who, what, where and why, sent out by wire to more than 300 client news agencies around town and around the world.

In its day, this room was one of the busiest 24-hour places in Los Angeles, full of shouting people, ringing phones, clattering teletypes, beeping scanners and clacking typewriters. As recently as the 1970s, it was staffed overnight by reporters from the Los Angeles Times, the late Herald Examiner, United Press International and the local CNS crew, for which I worked, intermittently, for nearly a decade.

Then something changed -- maybe it was the tsunami of TV pictures washing away old-fashioned narrative, maybe it was attitude: Old-timers recall that reporters and cops used to come from similar backgrounds and developed closer rapport. But by the end of the 1980s, most of the Parker Center press corps had vanished.

Only CNS remains. And, even within City News, L.A.'s low-paid, start-up-in-journalism wire service, it's been a long time since police reporting was a much-sought-after assignment. "I've worked small-town cops beats," recalls Lionel Rolfe, a veteran author and journalist who's done several recent years at CNS's overnight police beat. "There, you got to know the police personally: If you were any good, you knew everything that happened in the community."

"But one overnight reporter in a county of 10 million people can't find out much. Just about everything we write we get over the phone from the police. They control what we learn, and if we ask the wrong kind of questions, they can cut us off. Because no one goes out in the field on stories that happen during the overnight shift and checks the cops' version of facts, it can't be said that basic police reporting is very good in this city."

What's striking to Rolfe is that from roughly 11 p.m., when most of the other newsrooms close, to an hour or two after dawn, when the first broadcast assignment editors trickle in to their studios, the lonely and lowly paid man or woman at the Parker Press Room desk, surrounded by telephones and radios, keyboards and printers, is the eyes and ears of the nation's second largest media market. "Our success depends on our ability to get answers and to write fast and accurately," he says. Unfortunately, those who depend on CNS contend this is not always the case. For instance, along with everyone else, the CNS overnight reporter who was listening to the scanner the night of the Rodney King beating didn't think the brief, late-night radio chatter about the North Valley chase of an apparently drunken driver was worth a check-up call to the Foothill Division. At least no one admonished me for my blunder.

During the daylight hours and early evening, of course, CNS's advisories, stories and releads of shootings, fires and traffic accidents provide the strategic intelligence by which the entire press corps --TV, print and radio -- moves around the city. While rarely quoted by the Times, the CNS printer in that particular newsroom is the spark plug to the big paper's metro coverage -- the fountain of who, what, where and when. And there is a kind of unacknowledged information sharing among CNS dayside reporters, as well as more informative officials in hospitals and fire stations and detective bureaus to talk to by day. Which is why the dayside copy in the reporter's clipboard on the Parker Center news desk tends to be so much thicker than the nightside pile.

But the fundamental task of the overnight reporter is still to translate what the police person says into real words -- from cop-speak to press-speak -- whether, as the police used to put it, telephonically, or off the press release. But, nowadays, almost never in person.

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