The story behind the story about a newspaper reporting on the death of Danny Gans


I’ve been a newspaper editor for more than 35 years. I’ve covered hurricanes, tornadoes, train wrecks, ice storms, floods, multiple murders, shootouts, bank failures, even an island coup.

Usually, if there was time, there’d be a quick meeting of key people to divvy up assignments, to make sure key elements were covered, to dispatch photographers to the right places, to avoid having two reporters covering the same ground.

On Friday, I felt like a kid peeping through a knothole in a fence watching a well-oiled construction team go about its job of building an excellent newspaper.

By the time I got online that morning there was already a message from business reporter Howard Stutz saying he had heard Danny Gans had died. By the time I called the breaking news desk, reporters had already been dispatched, photographers alerted, entertainment writer Mike Weatherford was driving in, columnist Norm Clarke had been notified, people were pulling files of stories, old photos and video clips. News flashes were posted online and e-mail notices were sent as new elements came in. Blog items were posted by me, John L. Smith and publisher Sherman Frederick.

Later that morning I stuck my head into the glass-walled meeting room we call the fishbowl as the features editors and writers were going over how to divide up the work. I just listened.

I later learned of a plan for Nate Tannenbaum to do a video interview with Norm, Mike and Doug Elfman. OK. Nate later told me a bit apologetically that it ran 11 minutes. I keep harping that video needs to be tighter, that people online have short attention spans.

I did not get a chance to view it until hours after it had been posted, but it worked well. It has a really nice clip of Gans at the end doing some of his most famous impressions. Well worth the time.

Last night I fell asleep at my computer. So I did not really have a chance to fully grasp how all the elements would come together.

On Saturday morning, even I was amazed. Laid out on broadsheet newsprint — sometimes called emphera — was a story about the death of one man, but also a glimpse of the spirit of humanity.

Both the main story and Norm’s column used a story technique I call bookending. Each picked up a small element that spoke volumes about the occasion. The lede the story by Mike and Doug told about the Gans crew gathering for its traditional pre-show prayer, but without the star. The story ended: “And they prayed. And they mourned.”

Norm wrote about Gans, 52, ending his last show differently than normal. Instead of ending with the song “Apollo,” he ended it with Bobby Darin’s favorite closer "The Curtain Falls."

Darin died of heart failure at the age of 37.

Norm ended the column by quoting lyrics from “The Curtain Falls.”

I defy you to read either the story or the column without getting a bit misty.

The whole package was impressive. Any one of the photos in the package could’ve been the lede on the front page. The celebrity quotes and mugs, the time line, the whole package conveyed the story.

That is the story behind the story. A story of how professionals simply get to work and do it.

When I look at my watch to find out what time it is, I never think about the watchmaker. It’s probably the same when you look at the newspaper.