October 16, 2010

Ironwoman, a novel (Part 3)

Read the previous two instalments of Ironwoman, the (first draft of a) novel, as well as an introduction here.

Disclaimer: Although inspired in part by true incidents, the following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event.

“OK then. So this woman beat all the guys, you say. I guess that is something. And this is a big race right? So who is she?”

“Next headline, Ed,” Megan says, interrupting her editor to save time.

Megan reads out three lines that Ed will send as separate sentences all words in capital letters behind an asterix to the Bloomberg wire immediately.
“OK,” says Ed. “Now gimme the fill.”

Megan thinks for a few seconds to construct the lead sentence with the key piece of news for the fill Ed is waiting for, then says, “Tara Wiesner became the first woman to win the 29th Ironman World Championships in Hawaii outright, beating all her competitors including the men by nearly five minutes and smashing the female course record by 40 minutes.”

“Thanks. I need four graphs within 15 minutes Megan,” Ed says as she hears him type, hopefully the words she gave him as editors tend to have the final say in each story.

An advantage of working for a news wire is that the stories are built like pieces of Lego. It starts with a small block, a headline. As soon as a reporter finds out a piece of news or as soon as a company, government releases a statement or a person speaks, the most important information is condensed in one line sentences that are sent to the Bloomberg newswire, which simply means that clients can see this piece of news on their Bloomberg terminal.

The competition with the other newswires Reuters, Dow Jones and AP is fierce. At press conferences reporters from competing news wires will keep as close an eye on each other as the chief executive because as soon as one journalist them reaches for a cell phone, the others better do too.

Clients of the news wires, mostly Wall Street money men, stand to lose if the other news wires report something first, allowing the clients’ rivals to buy or sell faster. Billions of dollars can be made or lost at the touch of a button.

At Bloomberg, daily scorecards make the rounds on the biggest stories of the previous day. They show how many seconds, or if somebody really screwed up how many minutes, separated the first headline sent by either Bloomberg, Dow Jones or Reuters, and occasionally AP, the first story that appeared and subsequent updates. Updates of stories have more Lego blocks on it than the previous one. Megan already knew of the wrath of the editor in chief when a reporter wasn't up to speed.

As soon as a headline is sent, the reporter and her editor have five minutes to create one paragraph with the most important piece of news. That piece of news also will have references to other places on the Bloomberg where clients can find information related to the topic(s). It will also have a headline, dateline and byline including the names and phone numbers of people responsible for that story, allowing readers to contact the right person in seconds.

While Bloomberg reports mainly on financial news, it has reporters worldwide covering sports the majority of clients like such as soccer and cricket. Megan was an avid triathlete herself especially keen on the long distance events. It wasn't easy doing both. Her job took a minimum of 50 hours a week—with lunch between keystrokes and phone calls, while her triathlon training took at least 25 hours a week.

Triathlon wasn’t a sport any of Bloomberg’s sports reporters paid any attention too. Somehow she’d convinced her boss that this year Bloomberg needed a reporter at the Ironman World Championships in Kona and that she was the right person to do it. All her colleagues were jealous when they found out.

Megan and her boss Kane Donan got along great. She realized how much of a favour he did her by sending her to this event.

But now, she’d have the chance of her life to make a name for herself in the journalism world with this story. Most of the other reporters here at the world championships were working for the triathlon magazines. It would usually take at least another week if not two or longer for the magazines to appear. The reporter for the local newspaper may write a few words, but those would only appear tomorrow.

So any other news wire, newspaper and even TV and radio one who wanted to publish this story themselves may have to use hers and attribute it. That would earn her a “News You Can Use,” a must-have email from one of the managing editors sent to everyone in Bloomberg News worldwide and helpful in arguing for a salary increase come annual review time.

Now she’d better think about the other three paragraphs she needs to give him within a quarter hour. Since Megan, as always, prepared well for this event with story templates with important details such as the course record for men and women, it doesn’t take her long to come up with the next paragraphs. She is reminded yet again of the advantage of solid research in preparation before any news event.

She types on her laptop that thankfully has a battery lasting at least a couple of hours, “Wiesner, a Czech Republic national, broke the tape in 8:15:48, 4 minutes and 11 seconds ahead of the second finisher and the first male, Chris McDougall of Australia. Wiesner smashed the women’s course record of 8:55:28, set by Petra Nova-Francis in 1992.”

Megan checks the numbers on the fastest times set in the Kona Ironman so far. She feels excited and astonished as she writes the next sentence of her four-paragraph lead she needs to file in 7 minutes from now.

“Wiesner has narrowed the gap between the women’s course record and the men’s 8:04:08 set by Luke von Laser in 1996) to 11:40, from 51:28. Before today, the narrowest margin between the male and female world champion in the same year was 30:01 in 1988 when Steve Miller crossed the line in 8:31:00 and Nova-Francis followed in 9:01:01.” 

Now Megan needs one more paragraph, the one called the nut graph—the why-should-anyone-care-about-this graph. She has four minutes left to create one. As much as she thought she had done her due diligence in preparing for this race report, she had simply not anticipated this outcome. Megan takes a deep breath and thinks, What does Wiesner’s victory mean?

Women have been involved in the relatively young sport of triathlon from almost the beginning. In 1978, when the event that is now the Ironman World Championships was held for the first time 15 men started and 12 finished. The following year, one woman Linda Leeman was among the 14 people starting. Not only was she among the 11 that finished, her time of 12:55:38 was the fifth-fastest overall and would have given her third overall in the first edition.

A very impressive result in every possible way, and especially considering the fact that in 1979 it would still be another five years before females were allowed to compete at the marathon distance at the Olympic Games amid concern that endurance sports like distance running would damage women’s health. And it had only been in 1972 that women were first officially allowed to run the Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest annual marathon race.

Unusually, in triathlon prize money for the women pros is the same as it is for the men. However, even this sport including in Kona the overall male participation rate far outnumbers that of the women.

Megan writes, “Wiesner’s victory in the race that involves swimming 3.8km, cycling 180.1km followed by a 42.2km, or marathon distance, may mark a turning point in the fight for women’s equality in sports and comes barely two decades after women were first allowed to race the marathon at the 1984 Olympic Games.”

Done—at least for now, Megan thinks as she quickly emails her four-paragraph story to Ed.

Megan always worked hard and loved the intensity of working at the news wire. It has given her a chance to live in different parts of the world and travel. A perk of the demanding job was that, like other reporters and Bloomberg employees, she'd stay in the better hotels, fly business class for a flight over eight hours and use a credit card to take out sources. The latter was exactly what she hoped to do now.

She followed Tara as the world champion walked over the recovery area toward the oranges and melons.
"Hi Tara? My name is Megan. I am a reporter with Bloomberg News."
"Hi Megan. Sorry, who are you with?"

To be continued...

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