Breaking news: A busman’s holiday

Just inside the doors at CNN.

ATLANTA, Ga. – What does a journalist do on vacation in Atlanta? They visit newshound mecca.

The CNN Inside the Studio tour starts with a trip up the world’s tallest free-standing escalator. At 700 feet, the two-minute ride was once the entrance to an amusement park. The sprawling food court was a skating rink.

TV screens at 10-second intervals on the way up broadcast CNN’s live feed. I had picked the perfect time for a tour, as the news channel was scrambling to follow three breaking stories: Hurricane Earl, a massive earthquake in New Zealand and a UPS plane crash in Dubai.

There were displays at the top of the escalator we were told we could explore while the rest of the group made the slow journey to join us, but the breaking news on the huge screen was too inviting. It’s hard to get excited about a Super 8 camera under glass when there’s a hurricane threatening Cape Cod.

Tour guide Linnear asked each person and group where they were from. Most named towns and cities in the Carolinas, so when my turn came, I was proud to say I’d come all the way from Montreal. Then the guy beside me said: “I’m from Nigeria.”

Going up. Way up.

We were ushered into a small, incredibly comfortable theatre where Linnear begged us not to fall asleep. No chance – not with this show.

On the big screen, we could see everything that was displayed five floors below in the control room. The centre screen showed exactly what viewers in their living rooms saw. In the boxes surrounding that broadcast were cells showing various camera angles and options for the director. The top left cell was black.

“That shows what we’re broadcasting,” Linnear explained, “but you can see we’re on commercials, and the director doesn’t care about that.”

When we lay out pages in the print media world (at least, in my print media world), we see hot-pink-framed boxes rather than ads. The black screen is slightly more alarming, but it’s nice to know the CNN people also get to ignore advertising.

Linnear pushed a magic button and suddenly we could hear everything that was going on in the control room – in real time.

“What do we go to now?” someone asked. “Do we stick with Earl?”

“Go to Dubai,” a man answered.

An anchor recapped, then said: “We have the first pictures of that crash.”

From the control room: “Do we have those pictures? We don’t have those yet! Did we just get them?”

“We don’t have them. Go to Christchurch.”

The anchors transitioned smoothly. One was behind the 3,000-pound anchor desk; the other was standing.

“Show the map,” the director ordered calmly. The map was on the other side of the studio. “You’re going to have to go to the map. Follow him right over there.” Viewers at home saw a couple of cameras and heavy wires as a camera followed him to the giant map. Our group giggled. The anchor remained cool through the whole thing. The control room was quiet, letting the talking heads do their work.

Then: “We’ve got pictures!”

“We’ve got ’em?”

“Yeah, he’s got one of those gizmos.”

As the first shots from the Dubai crash came on the air, Linnear turned off the speakers.

There was 50 minutes left of the tour, but that intro was worth the price of admission – and more.

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