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Lessons learned from a life on deadline

by Curtis Rush, BA'76

I have survived life as a deadline writer.

After 40 years in newspapers and magazines, my last day at the Toronto Star will be April 30. I am 63 and going out a little early. But it’s time.

In my final days, I’ve been a sports deadline writer, covering the Maple Leafs, the Argonauts and the Toronto Rock of the National Lacrosse League. But I’ve also worked as a crime reporter, general assignment reporter and, on the other end, as an editor.

My nerves are a little frayed and my hands are a little gnarled from arthritis. But after writing and editing for four daily newspapers and one magazine, I’m proud to say I’ve never missed a deadline.

This streak goes back to Western and any essay I turned in.

I hate being late for anything. I think it’s in my DNA. Even if I meet a friend for drinks or dinner, I am always the first one to arrive. That’s a trait that has served me well with the Sarnia Observer, Edmonton Report magazine, the Toronto Sun and the Toronto Star.

I suppose I just don’t want to disappoint anyone. I don’t like it when people are late for me.

I’ve always lived by the fact that if you miss deadlines, you’ll soon be out of work.

It’s no secret sports writers are the fastest writers in the business. I don’t think you can teach speed writing. You have to learn it on the run. When sports teams wrap up their games at close to 11 p.m., you have no choice but to write fast.

At the Toronto Star, our first sports deadline for the next day’s Ontario edition is 11 p.m.

If you miss that, the editors will put in a filler story, and your name will be mud. They won’t hold up the presses. The next deadline is at midnight for the Metro edition for customers closer to the city.

Over the years, deadlines have been pushed up. We used to have a final print deadline of 2:05 a.m. for West Coast games.

In this era of 24-hour news, deadlines are every minute for online media.

After a Maple Leaf morning skate, sports writers are constantly tweeting updates and firing out news flashes from inside the dressing room. There is a constant rush to be first, but I never wanted to sacrifice accuracy for speed.

Newspapers, of course, have hard deadlines and you are held accountable.

After each shift, editors write internal notes to the higher-ups explaining what pages were released and at what time.

That’s why I get tense when the clock strikes 11. It gets worse at midnight. That’s when I have to file my complete story with quotes from the coach and players.

Over the course of a game, you have to develop the knack for typing and watching at the same time. Stoppages in play are gold for writers. That’s when you get your best work in.

My worst fear is getting the score wrong because I rushed. As a deadline writer, you must hurry but not rush. There’s a difference.

It’s tense on the other end too. I know.

I used to be a copy editor, and your job is to do a quick edit, slap a headline on and send it to the presses.

If you needed to go to the washroom, too bad. You should have gone earlier. No one goes to the washroom at 11 p.m. It’s the quietest place in the newsroom.

After you file for 11 p.m., your stress isn’t going down. It’s going up.

On the way to the locker rooms, you must wade through thick crowds. There is no express elevator for the writers. Although it’s against my nature, I’ve had to be a little aggressive to get around tipsy fans clogging my route. The coach’s press conference is held right after he addresses his team. I can’t afford to miss it.

The worst trek is at Montreal’s Percival Molson Stadium, home of the Alouettes. The press box is hundreds of feet up and there is no elevator.

After I file my game story, I must quickly bound down the stadium steps, rain or snow, dodging empty beer cans and wobbly fans, cut across the field, do my interviews and clamber back up to the press box to refile.

I’ve learned, at 63, if you’re not in shape, being a deadline writer is hard on the cardiovascular system.

I won’t miss the rush. I think deadline writing is for young legs and quick hands. In both of those areas, my body is betraying me.

Relaxation will be a whole new skill to learn.

With a lot of practice, however, I’m hoping that when the clock strikes 11 p.m., I’ll be either in bed or nodding off in front of the TV, with an empty beer can beside me.

Here’s to the sweet taste of being a former deadline writer.

Curtis Rush, 63, has been working as a newspaper deadline writer for 40 years, including the last 35 at the Toronto Star. He wrapped up his career at the end of April as a sports writer. Over his career, he has been both a copy editor and writer. He has never missed a deadline.

This article appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of Alumni Gazette
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