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Derby Insider: What's Deadline Like For A Louisville Sports Editor?

Kentucky Derby

Writers Get The Glory; Layout Crew Gets The Cookies

One Great Season

The Kentucky Derby has always defined the city of Louisville. It's known as the fastest 2 minutes in sports. It's also an event where the rich and famous come to be seen in their dapper best, and the city's natives enjoy a local holiday of sorts, taking time off from work to soak in the pomp and circumstance known as the Derby Festival and enjoying seeing the city at its brightest and boldest.

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As a Louisville native, I buy into the Derby. I love the whole thing -- the parades, the air show and fireworks, the fixed steamboat race, the parties, the hats. Bring it on. Heck, I knew how to bet a horse before I knew how to shave.

But there's another side to Derby. Six years ago when I decided  to take a job as a layout editor on the sports desk of the Courier-Journal, Louisville's daily newspaper, I put aside the joy and fun of Derby and subbed in a heaping helping of chaos, agony, exhaustion and often times simply sick hilarity of covering and producing the newspaper through its premiere event.


Backside At The Derby 2010 | Images From Derbys Past

Sure, I could easily tell you how the C-J reporters and columnists spend long hours at the track watching horses prep, talking to the horsemen, jockeys, owners and handicappers. That group enjoys the glory part of the event. They get to wax about the traditions, the legacies and the history. Every horse seems to have some kind of entertaining background or interesting path to the Derby. And the writers get to execute their craft at Churchill Downs, among the greatest sports venues in the world. Good for them.  

But today, I'm going to tell you another Derby story. It's what happens back at what we simply call "the office." It's the newsroom at 525 West Broadway, and it's specifically the sports copy and layout desk within the newsroom. We work in a space about as big as a McDonald's dining area. It's cluttered with piles of newspapers, old printouts, memos, photo proofs, reference guides, dictionaries (I think we still have those) and a whole lot of general crap, to be honest. This is where the sports section goes from blank slates in the computer system to the stories, headlines, photos and packages of information you see the next day.

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Oh, and we have the best schedules and hours of anyone on the planet ‑‑ nights and weekends. And that's not just on rotation. It's all the time. We essentially live life on the fringes of society.

Derby planning starts months in advance at the Courier-Journal. And most of it is simply shoring up solid and successful ideas, long ago created, which are implemented each year. But I'm here today to share with you the behind-the-scenes view of the sports department as it produces Derby coverage from the Thursday before into about midnight Saturday night, when the wrap-up Derby section is finally put to bed and another miracle is achieved for another year.


Since today is Thursday, I’ll start with what is happening or what will happen to us in here today:

+ 3 p.m. -- Today is the annual Derby Festival Parade. Thousands of people flock into downtown to watch the parade and amp up the Derby fever. For the C-J sports desk member, this is about the single worst day to drive into work. The parade runs right past our building, and starts at 5 p.m., which is conveniently about the time we are arriving at work. Our parking lots are jammed with parade patrons' cars. It's suddenly $10-$15 to park. Streets around our building are closed. We'll start getting ready for the work shift about this time, looking forward to all this chaos.

+ 4:30 p.m. -- We're racing down Broadway or the side streets trying to beat the deadline of when the streets are closed and everything goes into lockdown. We're cussing all the nuclear families, gaggles of kids and clowns, police and anyone else slowing our arrival or in the way. Their only purpose downtown is this parade. Geez. Well, people, I need to get to work, did you ever think of that?

+ 5 p.m. -- We're hopefully parked, seemingly into the next county, and now carrying our lunch, work bag, provisions and whatever else while weaving through a maze of people whose lives are better than ours. Two years ago, as I was trying to cross Broadway, I got delayed walking behind a guy pushing a gigantic cart of balloon novelties, stuffed animals and those glow-bright necklaces. Meanwhile, I was carrying highly important rough proofs of our Derby preview section center spread and the ad layout structure of the 24-page section. It's really a moment when things get put into perspective.

+ 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. -- During this time, we’re working with our sports editor and deputy sports editor to go over that day's stories and photos. By this time in the week, our sports section has almost doubled in size since the beginning of the week. This means we usually have two and half pages dedicated to Derby and Oaks coverage. Each day of Derby week, our photographers are snapping hundreds of photos and sending them into us for review and current and future use. Managing photography is a big-time commitment of our week. We're also still covering high school sports, college basketball and football news and using and editing wire services for all other sports. All this is figured in and a section plan is devised during the "budget" meeting, which usually wraps up between 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

+ 6:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. -- During these six hours, a group of about seven editors and layout people will produce the section, writing headlines on stories, captions for photos, organizing stories on pages, formatting and editing charts and entries from Churchill Downs and all this trying to meet three staggered deadlines, the first at 9:45 p.m., the second at 11 p.m. and the third at midnight. It's a furious pace. With the thrust of Derby coverage most copy editors are editing and processing 7-8 stories in three hours. Two layout people are dividing 5-6 pages up between them, while also editing photos and trying to figure out what fits where. I like to call this process usually the fastest three hours in sports, because it's usually three hours from the end of the budget meeting to the end of the first deadline.

But tonight, the fun won't end at 12:30ish, when proofing and tweaking generally end on the daily section. Tonight, myself and a couple of other editors will start producing and putting the opening touches on our 24-page Derby preview section which will be published Saturday morning. This will keep us here until the wee hours, getting set up and trying to get as much of a running start as we can. Friday is Oaks Day, and Derby Eve, and it's a long and stressful day in here.



+ 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. -- While most of the city is out partying and having a grand time at Churchill for Oaks Day, we're rolling into the office and getting started on our biggest sports section of the year. This is a piece of trivia you may not realize: Oaks Day for the sports department is actually the busiest and most intimidating because between our Derby preview section and regular sports section, we're producing about 30 pages. That's about 40 percent larger than any other single day of work we have throughout the year.

(Trivia: Derby Day itself is not the single busiest day for the sports department because the Derby wrap-up coverage is produced by a combined sports, news and art department team. So for the sports staff, it's not nearly the titanic task that Friday is because everything is shared more. So while most people are working on their third and fourth Bourbon or 10th beer, we're trying to figure out when and how the hell we're going to find time to eat this frozen meal we packed.)

+ 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. -- By this point, we’re a couple of hours into working through the 30 or so sports pages.

The Derby preview in general  is especially in a critical time. This is when most of the stories and charts are coming in and we're doing the heaviest load of editing and design in this section. We're scrambling for photos, scrambling to gather up media predictions, double-checking facts and figures, making sure we're not missing news on the track and generally scrambling for our lives. At some point, we look up and realize the Oaks is about to run, so we take a five-minute break and watch the race. We watch it, mind you, on one of our 20-inch TVs. This is the no frills league, folks.

The language on this day rivals that from the set of Scarface. Tempers are the shortest and stress is the highest during this time. You can always count on a few reporters to hit snags or delays and their stories are either in total peril or simply running late. Each year, it never fails; I always feel like for a couple of hours that this simply isn't going to get done. At certain points, I'm juggling 12 or 13 pages and most of them are only half-done. I've got multiple people hovering over me, monitoring my progress and asking how everything stands. I smile and say "just fine." In my mind, I'm saying this is a cluster@$#@!%. Remember the classic scene in "Airplane" when Ted Striker is trying to land the plane and the buckets of sweat are pouring off of him? That's us for about four hours Friday night.

+ 8:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. -- Usually, like clockwork, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel by about 8:30 p.m. Somehow, in the 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. range, the remaining crises seem to get resolved and things fall into place, and I usually turn my last page and stories over to the copy editors at about 9 p.m. This is a time to take a little bit of a breather and know you're going to make it for another year and not get fired. The rest of the hour between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. I spend tweaking my layouts and tying up loose ends before typsetting the pages to the pressroom. At some point, I have to remember to eat!

+ 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. -- It's a big relief to have the Derby section complete, but the night is not over. Next up is working ahead to Sunday's sports section. Each year, we produce a special Derby wrap-up section, which includes wall-to-wall coverage of the race and the spectacle of the day. It's usually 14 to 16 pages.

Then there's a regular sports section, which is usually 8 pages. In the regular sports section, our recruiting writer Jody Demling produces a "Super 5" package where the C-J picks the top five high school basketball players in the nation and we do a full page package with player bios, photos and stats. We also choose an honorable mention team. Since basketball is a year-round sport here in Louisville, much like horse racing, we still make sure we give our readers another reason to pick up the Sunday Derby paper. So late Friday night is spent putting this package together, in addition to our outdoors page, college basketball notebook and setting up the organization of the regular section. Derby Eve is usually a 12-hour day. It's exhausting, but you're happy and full of pride when it's over.



In all honesty, this has the potential to be the easiest day of the week for the sports department editors and layout folks. The C-J puts together a mammoth team of reporters, editors and photographers to get this blanketed from every angle. It truly is impressive. The workload is departmentalized to such a degree that the sports department itself is not nearly as taxed as Friday.

+ 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. -- After a day of watching the festivities at the track on TV or popping in to an early party where you're drinking soft drinks or bottled water and having people look bug-eyed at you when you tell them you have to work that night, you arrive to join the massive staff that starts arriving. The Derby wrap-up is organized and set up in advance and everyone is given a big instruction manual to the secton. The manual includes a guide to which stories are on which page, whom is designing the page, phone numbers for key people on the Derby desk, page deadlines, the reporter assigned to each story, the photo editors and photographers, a description of any charts that go with the stories and tons of other useful info.

+ 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. -- During this time, a few layout and copy editors are working on the early pages of the section. These are mostly the celebrity stories and photos and coverage of the infield and millionaire's row. These are the most  photo-driven pages, and as a result are among the most popular pages. You know how people love magazines like People and US Weekly for all the candid and natural shots of celebrities in society? Well, this is the same concept. The C-J is given access to all parts of the track to record through photos the famous and not-so-famous people enjoying the Derby.

+ 5 to 6 p.m. -- This is perhaps the most important part of the day. It's when the catered food is delivered and set out. This is huge. I don't even know where it comes from, but it's delicious and impressive. Forget what the lead headline is going to say, the food selections and timing can make or break people on this type of day. Let's put it this way: sometimes food spreads at this place conjure up more legends and memories than the Derby winners themselves.

It starts with the deli sandwiches -- turkey, ham and all the fixins; there's usually huge amounts of veggie and fruit trays; dips and chips; cheese, crackers and breads. Then there are the desserts. I love cookies. But I may never love cookies more than when they're big and soft and chocolately and sitting on the counter on Derby Day. There are also brownies and nut things and an endless supply of everything it seems. Despite all the cutbacks, reduction in resources and general demise of many of the newspaper's abilities, the Derby food spread is truly a tradition that must stay intact!

+ 6:20 p.m. -- The whole operation comes to a halt while everyone stops and finds a TV to watch the Derby. I must admit, even after now seeing about 30 Derbies either in person or on TV, I still get goose bumps at the start and then when the horses are coming around the turn to head for home. But after those two minutes are over, it's back to reality, and time to start putting together the pieces of another Derby section.

+ 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. -- Another furious four hours or so of work, only this time you have a fleet of people forming an assembly line to process stories and photos. There's a group just writing captions for the photos, another group just writing stories, still another simply collecting and editing photos, and of course another group desinging and layout out the pages. I've never counted, but there easily could be in the newsroom 25-30 people involved in putting out just the Derby section, with another 10 or so people are putting out the regular news sections, and about a half dozen are putting out the regular sports section.

+ 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. -- This is mostly the mop-up faze of the operation. Some Derby pages are brought back to be tweaked and upgraded for our Indiana and metro editions. If there are any typos, they are caught and fixed during this time and new pages sent to the pressroom. Every detail and decision is given thought and careful scrutiny.

And that doesn't count all the high-level managers hovering over shoulders and contributing their views and opinions on what the main headline should say and what the front should look like and in general leading from the front. Eventually, everyone is satisfied and you head home or out to decompress.

While most of the city is by now feeling the effects of all the alcohol, sun and partying, and feeling like they were run over by a truck, editors are feeling like we were run over by journalism. Maybe that isn't such a bad thing, for once these days.

People are really on their best this day. It's really true. You hear the analogy about athletes who play their best during pressure time and big games, and it's the same concept here. We don't always look our best day to day, but on Derby, we produce an impressive and beautiful piece of work. Hell, we've had 136 years of practice.

Mike Mudd is an assistant editor in the sports department at the Louisville Courier-Journal. One of the biggest thrills in his life was in 2004 when for the first and only time in his life he got to experience a Kentucky Derby with a press pass. Nowadays, he gets his Derby thrills in different ways, like succeeding in finding a mugshot of every Derby starter each year to run on the preview section’s center spread. Follow him on Twitter @mudd4goals.

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    If you appreciate football, you most likely have a favored team from the National Football League or two and have a list of players who like to have noticed.

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