30 Years After Challenger, Some Lessons Endure

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a print article or a Snapchat: If you want to be a trusted source of content, put the readers’ interests above your own.

30 Years After Challenger, Some Lessons Endure

Thirty years ago today, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight. Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from Concorde, N.H., was the first non-government civilian to fly, and school children around the country were watching the liftoff. I was a reporter at a daily newspaper in New Jersey, one of the last papers to still have a morning deadline for an afternoon edition.

When the news came across the wire services that morning, my editor yelled those famous words: “Stop The Presses!”

The presses were downstairs, a massive set of machines with a conveyer belt running through them that deposited newsprint with still-damp ink onto a loading dock, where trucks waited to take the papers to newsstands, newspaper boxes, and people’s front porches by the end of the day. The paper was thick with ads and was an important part of the community.

That morning in our newsroom, we had less than an hour to write a story and remake our front page. Our editor sat another reporter and me side by side, a radio tuned to the news between us. We each had a manual typewriter and a stack of blank paper. Our instructions were for one of us to take handwritten notes on the radio reports while the other typed a page. Then, page after page, we’d switch. When one of us got to the end of the page, we’d rip it out of the typewriter and a copyboy would run it to the typesetters in the back room. Then, whichever one of us was typing would turn to the radio and take notes while the other would write the next page. Meantime, our colleagues were phoning local teachers, politicians, and other city and county personalities for reactions, and were yelling their quotes across the room so we could work them into the story.

Such was the state of the art at a small city paper in 1986. Today that paper is a very thin shadow of its former self, largely displaced by the digital transformation that has reshaped all of our lives. This is not meant to be a wistful look back at some grander past–although the Challenger explosion is a sad reminder of a time in my life when chasing fire trucks and writing news stories on deadline was about the most fun I could imagine. Still, I fully embraced the changes as they came and even had a small part in pushing some of them forward–the start of a different, equally fun journey that continues today. But it does underscore that the transformation is by no means over. As marketers and brands move more aggressively into publishing, be prepared for even more disruptive change.

Since the Challenger, my career has (so far) moved from an era of manual typewriters and printing presses through the Web to the social/mobile revolution. But regardless of the medium, this has remained true: The values of acting as a credible source of content requires that we serve the reader first. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a print article or a Snapchat: If you want to be a trusted source of content, put the readers’ interests above your own. The Challenger anniversary marks the incredible distance we’ve come in 30 years. Throughout, those who have been able to adapt to change without losing sight of that core principle are the people who have had a lasting impact.

Here is one more newsroom story, this one on a much smaller scale. The day finally arrived that we were to transition from working on manual typewriters to what was at the time a state-of-the-art (dumb) publishing terminal. We were asked to practice on the system by writing a story and then sending it to the person next to us. We would then edit each other’s stories. I wrote a brief piece and sent it on, and then waited for an article to arrive from my colleague. He was an old-school editor, a guy who had been around forever, ink-stained and smoke-stained, ornery, and a great editor and teacher. I was in my mid-20s and loved this guy and the small group of curmudgeons like him still working at the paper.

Finally his article popped into my queue. I took a look and sent it back to him, untouched. He had written his own obituary.

Faced with the prospect of change, we all have a choice: We can use emerging tools to advance our values or we can write our own obituary.