Really Big News: A Flash Means This Is Likely to be the Year’s Top Story

A recent Mike Feinsilber post, Flashes! Bulletins! When Bells in the Newsroom Really Meant Something, said:

On a typical news day, the wires might cough out one or two bulletins, or none. To alert editors sitting close to the teletype machine, five bells rang—ding, ding, ding, ding, ding—when a bulletin moved.

News that was noteworthy, but not all that big, was called an URGENT and rang no bells. An urgent was transmitted in takes—two or three paragraph chunks. Often the writer was writing the second take while the first was moving on the wire. At the other end of the wire, editors were editing the first take while awaiting the second and third and more.

An ordinary news day could generate five or 10 or two dozen urgents.

Then there were flashes. Or rather rarely were there flashes. The AP style book says a FLASH represents “a transcendent development—one likely to be a top story of the year.” The death of a pope would warrant a flash but the spotting of white smoke from the Vatican chimney, signifying the election of his successor, would only call for a bulletin. When the wires declare the election of a president, a flash is in order. Years could pass without the generation of a single flash.

Flashes were written short, like a headline, more an advisory to editors that big news—stop-the-presses news was on hand. A flash was followed immediately by a publishable bulletin.
Yesterday the Connecting newsletter for Associated Press staffers and retirees sent out by Paul Stevens added this background to the AP’s Muhammad Ali flash—Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight champion whose fast fists and irrepressible personality captivated the world, dies—filed on June 3:

When Muhammad Ali died last Friday, the AP delivered first word to its members by a rarely used Flash.

In the old days, it would have been accompanied by 10 bells on the AP Teletype before and after the text. In today’s computer world, editors are alerted by a variety of ways, depending on their computer system—such as an audible alarm or a pop-up in the middle of an editor’s screen.

When a Flash was used last, on the death of Nelson Mandela, Connecting colleague and AP standards editor Tom Kent discussed the Flash in a blog, and he wrote:

A flash is our first word of a breaking story of transcendent importance, a story we expect to be one of the very top stories of the year. We average one or two flashes a year. They’re never more than one sentence, and frequently very condensed.

Sometimes we know in advance that a story will merit a flash. This was the plan for Nelson Mandela’s death. But big news can happen without warning. When the United States killed Osama bin Laden and Pope Benedict XVI decided to resign, editors decided on the spot that a flash was warranted.

The AP began using the Flash in 1906 with the San Francisco earthquake that killed 3,000 people. It dramatized the need for a definite method for rushing out the first brief fact on a news event of first importance. In the past the traditional “bulletin” had been considered satisfactory, but in a day of many extra editions newspaper editors required even quicker notice that a story of extraordinary character was breaking. Some old-time telegraphers had developed the habit of tapping the word F-L.A-S-H before the relay of an out-of-the-ordinary news item.

Here are some AP Flashes of recent years:

Dec. 5, 2015 –   Nelson Mandela’s death
June 6, 2015 –  American Pharoah wins Triple Crown
Feb. 28, 2013 – Pope Benedict’s resignation
Nov. 6, 2012 –   Barack Obama re-elected president
May 2, 2011 –    Bin Laden’s death
Dec. 18, 2011 –  North Korea says supreme leader Kim Jong Il has died
Feb. 11, 2011 –   Egyptian VP says President Hosni Mubarak steps down
Nov. 4, 2008 –  Obama elected
Aug. 16, 2008 – Michael Phelps wins record eighth gold medal at Beijing Olympics
Feb. 19, 2008 – Official media says Fidel Castro resigns presidency
Dec. 27, 2007 – A party aide and a military official say Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto has died following a suicide bombing
Oct. 14, 2003 – China launches manned spacecraft
Dec. 11, 2001 – Second World Trade Center tower collapses
Dec. 11, 2001 – One World Trade Center tower collapses
And then there was this flash sent by UPI’s Merriman Smith from the press motorcade car in Dallas on November 22, 1963:

Paul Stevens points out that there are two errors in his post’s list of AP flashes filed since 2000. Look again at the date of the biggest news story of the past 15 years.

Here’s some of the AP wire from that day.




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