A Day of Mike-Alpha-Yankee-Hotel-Echo-Mike

I spy with my little eye a SWAT team!
I spy with my little eye a SWAT team! // Gustavo Sanchez

The morning of the hoax, everything spelled Tango-Romeo-Oscar-Uniform-Bravo-Lima-Echo. There was trouble downtown, and it wasn’t at all clear what kind. Witnesses stepped forward, then melted away under questioning. Policemen and reporters alike dove down rabbit holes and chased wild geese. False alarms sounded into the early evening, when a man in the Bingham library claimed he had a hand grenade.

The day’s end, thank goodness, didn’t include tragedy. Only worn shoe-leather and these jumbled thoughts on information, communication and timing.

*  *  *

This was my first Thanksgiving without a regulation school break. Instead, the Monday before the holiday found me still standing at my desk (sitting kills), keeping company with editor Paul Bass and the static of the police scanner in the New Haven Independent’s matchbox-sized office on Elm Street.

Police scanners and Twitter have a lot in common, it turns out. Both face space and time constraints, for one thing. A police officer talking on a radio needs speed — usually someone’s hurt, in danger, requires backup. On Twitter, at least in the news biz, one aims to scoop. In both formats, you’ve got to break it down for your audience.

But the differences matter. If you have access to a scanner, for instance, odds are you’re either a cop, fireman, security guard or reporter, listening for what’s action- or newsworthy. Twitter, happily, with no barrier to entry, combines equal parts signal, noise and meme.

*  *  *

In the office with the scanner, hour after hour, the retro crackling fades into a fuzzy background soundscape, and a vernacular poetry fills the sonic white spaces in the day.

A phonetic alphabet scheme generates the limited lexicon of this spoken-word genre. In order to avoid confusions, since certain letters of the alphabet sound alike over the air (think fraternally twinned sounds “A” and “H,” or “B” and “V” — not to mention the confusion of “W”), a particular word represents each letter. To spell “Barack Obama,” for instance, you’d say “Bravo-Alpha-Romeo-Alpha-Charlie-Kilo. Oscar-Bravo-Alpha-Mike-Alpha.” B-heavy names sound congratulatory. When F (Foxtrot) or T (Tango) show up in a license plate description, I feel lighter on my feet.

Much like the visual #, @, MT and RT signs in Twitterese, the oral word code (though technically a kind of expansion, rather than shorthand) organizes content in a new way in response to a formal challenge.

Plus, both police scanners and Twitter deliver news in real time. There’s no delay — no proofing before a print deadline or arguments around a boardroom table. (One NHI tweet from that day still reads “pdate” for “Update,” a typo testament to the day’s pace.)

A direct communication between writer and reader occurs without anyone to slow it up, question or interfere — some reporters’ dream scenario. Others find it harrowing — the loss of a last line of defense against triteness, a facile point or overzealous news-breaking. Call it self-doubt, but in a panicky atmosphere, with accuracy paramount, why turn down an extra pair of eyes?

*  *  *

That morning, as I headed towards Old Campus under a pale sky to investigate the police scanner tipoff of a threat made from a payphone, a new message crackled through the air: “Confirmed report of a gunman … Shelter in place at once … This is not a drill.” I called Paul and phoned in the phrases. He posted them on the site. This became our routine throughout the day.

More than once, reporters on Twitter posted details before our main article updated, but Paul made his case for context and narrative, and we stayed ahead of the pack as often as not.

@nhindy was, in some ways, a faceless, bodiless handle — with multiple reporters and editors responsible, rather than a single voice. It was a virtual newsboy — hawking a headline that led to a more complete text. We may have lost a certain human quality with that move, but I also understand better the reasoning behind it now.

And the external eagle eyes of Twitterbirds helped our coverage as much as internal oversight. We’re a skeleton staff of four, so others fleshed out our reporting with on-the-scene details or called for focus where particulars were blurry.

I haven’t leapt out of the nest into the twittersphere yet; I plan to one day soon. Delay and mediation will always be available for those who want distance and crave space between the instantaneous self and the World Wide Web. But on the day of the scare, I was following feeds more often than refreshing pages. So I’ll get up to speed. I really will. Any minute now.

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