Deadline at the Delta Daily

Crime took a holiday that sultry summer day, 
leaving our FPE (front page editor) 
irritated and exasperated 
because his idea of worthwhile breaking news
had nothing to do with hot season fashion trends,
heat waves, hot air balloons, barbecues,
swimming pools, cooling centers,
and everything typical of July.
What he wanted for his page were
armed robberies, carjackings, 
random shootings and stabbings,
poisonings, abductions, disappearances, 
and whatever served to remind readers
about staying alive by staying alert
to the perils of this dangerous world 
as chronicled explicitly and extensively 
on the crime-crowded front page
of the Delta Daily.
On this miraculously crime-free day 
however, we had little to report
other than annoying power outages, 
a wandering grandmother
with Alzheimers, a missing pet,
an ice cream truck meltdown,
a health department warning
about entertaining mosquitoes
and smaller pests in your living room,
and the animal circus
of a fun-loving little Delta town
whose whimsical citizens nominated
a cat, cow, duck, dog, pig and donkey 
for the office of honorary mayor.
Lacking as he did the crime factory 
he craved for page one,
the FPE despaired of losing readers
and subscribers with “boring non-news” 
as he arrived at my desk
to find me hard at work on the phone 
with my bookie and a major league bet
while playing a wink-wink game
with Miss Honeywell from advertising
who slipped into my cubicle 
with a gift of passion fruit lemonade  
and an earful of office gossip
that I agreed not to repeat or report.
Shooing the charming temptress away 
and slapping my legs off my desk,
the FPE ordered me “out on the double”
to grab “a smash or crash story”
and put “at least a token of excitement”
on page one, something newsworthy
or noteworthy enough to restore what he called
“the confidence and trust of our readers
that we report all the news fit to print—
or what we feel compelled to print anyhow.” 
I checked with my friendly local sheriff
for an update on a missing woman
last seen being swept away in her kayak
on the rapid waters of the Mokelumne
and still missing, undoubtedly swallowed
by the raging river or sent without her consent 
down the San Joaquin to Frisco Bay.
Her name rang a memory bell
because her footloose husband
had disappeared not long  before
while embarked on a risky solo sail
across the Pacific, leaving me to wonder
about the mystery of a double tragedy,
but neither time nor incentive to play detective. 
A police dispatcher lured me
to the flashing lights and multiple cops
surrounding an overturned big rig
that lay helplessly on its side
at the nexus of key traffic points,
snarling traffic and arousing the suspicion
of officers who tested the breath
and blood of a driver who proclaimed 
his innocence by placing the blame
for the fiasco on the truck itself.  
Here was all I needed for page one—–
a careless or reckless accident
that could easily have crunched
a passing auto or two, now lying
like a beached whale, frustrating 
a long line of stalled and indignant motorists
with no easy means of escape,
a line growing longer and longer
by the rush hour minute, with some
bored motorists abandoning their cars
for a closer look at catastrophe
(one of the FPE’s favorite words)
and a scolding from Highway Patrolmen
who waved them back with a warning.  
Flashing my press badge
and snapping photos here and there,
I hustled interviews, such as the guy
who gave me his take on the disaster:
“It’s like every time I go out, I see 
another one of these overturned trucks.
You really can’t help wondering 
if there’s an epidemic of big rig flips
and if it’s a form of protest from drivers
seeking better hours and higher pay,
or maybe some kind of nasty sabotage
the FBI or CIA ought to know about?
But don’t quote me on that,
I don’t want to get into trouble!”
“Excuse me, sir,” a muddled motorist
flagged me as I made my hurried rounds,
“can you tell me if this is the connector ramp 
from the east town crosstown to the southbound interstate?
Or am I heading in the wrong direction
and connecting where I don’t want to go?”
I shook my head, uttered “No comprendo”
and moved on to the outspoken businesswoman
who denounced what she saw
 as a severe case of highway mismanagement,
 saying she’d seen TV news stories
 about all kinds of wrecks and stalls,
 but never one that ruined her schedule:
“We’ll be stuck here for God knows
how long, and I have work to do
and a family dependent on me. 
Of all the handicaps
a busy person like myself 
has to endure,  
nothing is more punishing than
waiting, waiting, and wasting time!”
The Highway Patrol began informing
motorists to expect a lengthy delay
and ordered them to remain in place,
staying calm and cool with A/Cs running. 
Those too eager to flee the scene
had already caused several collisions
with speeding traffic they never saw coming
as they foolishly tried to accelerate out
or reverse across the highway stripes
and reroute themselves, only to inflict
smashups, road rage and a siren-wailing
fleet of ambulances trying to navigate
a sea of stalled cars.
The problem became more problematic
when a caravan of enterprising food trucks
arrived on the scene to take advantage 
of the approaching dinner hour
by offering famished and frustrated meal planners
their choice of Mexican, Indian, Chinese,
Japanese, Senegalese and Vietnamese dishes
and delicacies at a special discount rate
available only for nowhere-to-go consumers.
With all the pieces of the story in hand
and initial paragraphs already in my head, 
I raced back to the newsroom
to meet the unforgiving deadline
and write with the speed, clarity, vigor
and precision demanded by
the game of beat the clock. 
To do so, I ignored phone calls, emails, 
visits from idle and inquisitive office mates,
but not the thoughtful Miss Honeywell
bearing me a cup of Kona and coconut creamer.
Despite these and other distractions,
I wrote fast and well, faster and better
as if my life depended on it, 
which is the best and most efficient way
to defeat the deadline 
which I did with 18.7 minutes to spare.
I then leaned back with a sense of mission accomplished
and reflected on my achievement,
feeling worthy of a reward for writing
and filing the perfect front page story
in which not a single word needed altering
and not a single reader would find fault. 
I imagined my superlative effort would earn
a slap on the back and a hearty “well done!”
Perhaps even a publisher’s high praise
and a commendation cash award
enabling me to offer Miss Honeywell
the opportunity to help us celebrate 
the end of a strenuous news day
with a summer refreshment, sipped on
the waterfront Delta deck of the Garlic Sisters
with a view of a lovely world without deadlines.
“Forget it,” the FPE admonished me.
 “Who the hell cares about a dead rig?
Fortunately, there was an armed robbery
while you were out wasting your time—-
one bystander wounded, one robber dead,
two arrested and one the cops are hunting. 
Talk about last minute luck!
We’ll go with that.
It’s what people secretly want to read
although they never admit it.”
“I’m out of here,” I said, tossing my notebook and photos in the can.
“Not so fast, kid! 
I’ve got your next assignment.
Go see if the river patrol has found
 any trace of that missing woman.
 If not, go after her yourself, 
see what you can find,
and find out all you can about her.
Dead or alive, it’s page one priority
whether she washed ashore somewhere
or she’s camping out as if nothing happened
or maybe recovering from whatever did.
You never know about disappearances
and what the real story may be.
Our readers have a right to know!”
“Get it yourself,” I snapped. “I’m a reporter, not a detective.” 
“Oh, come on, sport, where’s your sense of adventure?
“You move pretty fast and you can get a boat
to follow the cops or go hunting on your own.
Get an interview if she’s still breathing 
and willing to talk about her ordeal. 
Survival against odds! Now that’s a story
you can’t refuse–not if you’re the reporter
I think you are. Not if you want your byline
on a story that has Front Page Star
written all over it. I know you can do it
even if you don’t,
but you have a lot to learn about life
and here’s your opportunity.
Now get going and get it!”

No trace of the missing woman
or her ocean-vanished husband
was ever found, until the two
were discovered living secretly
on a distant island where they’d escaped
with a fraudulent fortune, having blanked 
taxation and immigration authorities
by faking their respective deaths.
Meanwhile, back at the Delta Daily,
the crime-obsessed FPE was reassigned
to agricultural commerce and replaced by
a tech-savvy woman who intended
to up circulation and sales by changing 
the front page from a crime sheet 
to something beyond sensationalism.
“I would like us to be far less flagrant
on the front page,” she told us,
“and more caring about issues
that have been ignored or neglected.
Less like a police blotter 
and more sensitive to what matters
in the community, and what can be done
about scams, online security  
and the darker side of technology
in which we place so much of our trust
without seeing where it is leading us.”
I tore up my letter of resignation and went to work.

Leave a Reply


  • It just goes to show where real journalism is during these days of overreaching sensationalism.
    Or something like that.
    Always like your “take”, Howard.

  • Aw the perils of life as a journalist and the depressing news stories that arise daily. Stick with the more uplifting world of entertainment and the arts! And I’m off to see “Ragtime” in Sac this weekend. Just will try not to look at the blight of our capital city while driving in and out!

  • Great homage story for local journalism! The story makes me think about how local stories are disappearing and why writing all types of stories is important instead of just focusing on crime and other scandals. It makes me appreciate my three years as a journalist and how it benefits a community.

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