It has been just over a year since the election of Donald J. Trump forced the political establishment to reconsider how it does business, and in turn upended many of the news media’s rhythms.
Mr. Trump is not a 9-to-5 president, and the way he works has complicated the way he is covered. This is especially true at night. Missiles fly, the staff is shaken up, policy is announced. The tweets never stop. They can be deadly serious (an attack on Syria’s chemical weapons capability) or unintentionally funny (“covfefe”).
On the front lines at The New York Times after the usual working hours have been Lara Jakes, who until last month was the night editor for the Washington bureau, and Steve Kenny, who runs the newsroom at night in New York.
Ms. Jakes, a former correspondent for The Associated Press who came to The Times from Foreign Policy magazine, joined the Washington bureau the same week that Mr. Trump was inaugurated. Her entire experience at The Times has been defined by the Trump administration.
Mr. Kenny has been the night editor in New York for almost three years, and for two years before that was night editor in Washington.
Here is their discussion about how Year 1 of the Trump era has affected their jobs on the night shift.
Q: What was that first month like, especially for a newcomer to The Times?
Ms. Jakes: It was exciting! (And exhausting.) And exciting!
Mostly it seemed like jumping on a speeding treadmill as it was cranking into high gear. The hardest part was the unpredictability, and how to triage so much incoming news at once.
It’s fairly normal for an avalanche of executive orders to be issued and staff nominations to be launched in the first days of a presidential administration — I think we were all prepared for that. What was surprising (to me at least) was how much was undone in that first month — Mr. Trump’s travel ban order being blocked and the national security adviser Michael T. Flynn’s forced resignation immediately come to mind.
Mr. Flynn’s mid-February departure was particularly challenging because it came between print editions. In other words, once we confirmed it had happened, we had to rush it online to preserve the scoop and at the same time rip up the front page on an extremely tight deadline and late at night.
That was a totally new experience for me — trying to simultaneously feed both the web and the paper, which each have specific and slightly differing needs. I’d previously worked for a newspaper, a wire service and a website, but this required using the skills from each of those platforms at once. That sort of set my learning curve at The Times.
Mr. Kenny: It was like a serious jolt of caffeine. The New York night crew is always running and gunning, and I took this job just as the 2016 race was heating up. So I had been through almost two years of primaries and debates and then the rollicking general election.
There were a lot of long shifts — beginning at 3 p.m. and ending at 3 a.m. But I expected things to settle down after the inauguration.
That didn’t happen. Why? Well, Mr. Trump seems to like working long hours. If he’s tweeting policy at 11:30 p.m., we have to cover it.
He can tweet and sign off, but those 140-280 characters may keep reporters and editors here in New York and in Washington busy for hours. Everyone has lost a lot of sleep.
And then, of course, the New York night desk has to cover news from the rest of the world, too.
Q: Take us through what happens in New York and Washington when a big story breaks in the late afternoon or at night.
Ms. Jakes: My shift had barely started on the May afternoon that Mr. Trump fired James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director, when one of the national security reporters yelled across the newsroom that the White House had just announced it. The first thing I did was to call Steve, so that he could spread the word in New York that a story was coming and have copy editors and push alert writers standing by.
The reporter gave us a few quick paragraphs — with the news up top and a bit of background — that were edited by a group of Washington editors who were reading over each other’s shoulders and offering word suggestions as the reporter was still writing. One of the Washington editors would have been working with a team of writers in New York to craft a 130-character push alert to post as soon as the story published online. And the reporter is continuing to write throughout the process, so that we can keep adding new information and more context, until we’re done.
It’s a lot of stress, usually including some shouted questions and orders, over a very short period of time — say five minutes or so. My hands usually go numb from the adrenaline rush, making it harder to type. There have been a lot of those moments this year. And that is just to describe an online breaking news story.
In July, we learned that Senator John McCain had brain cancer and rushed to alert it. We had little more than a half-hour to write enough of a story to make the 9 p.m. deadline for the night’s first newsprint edition. I managed the web copy and updates while Steve cleared the decks to rush it into the paper. It is far, far easier to describe it here than it was to make it happen in real time.
There have been hundreds of examples of smaller, less stressful breaking stories during the night shift. But in each case, my first call was almost always to Steve, which is why I called him my “work husband” because there have been days when I have spoken to him more often than to any other person.
Mr. Kenny: In the Trump administration, news can develop in such a haphazard way. You always have to be prepared to move, and in a hurry.
A good example is the fight that began the day after Thanksgiving over leadership at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. We weren’t going to cover the initial report — that the director would step down early, at midnight — but before we were through that night we had a story that was No. 2 on the web and A1 in print. We went from zero to 60 very quickly.
All because the Trump administration did something unexpected — it made an end-run on the outgoing director by, very quietly, naming an interim chief of its own. That set up a showdown between the administration and the outgoing director. The story is continuing to play out.
But we had to assess what that actually meant. No one had ever seen a bureaucratic fight quite like it.
In New York, we’re coordinating coverage that goes in the print editions and on the home page and mobile platforms. For me, the story went like this: I called the Washington editor, who called the reporter covering Mr. Trump in Florida, who called the press secretary on duty. I called the business editor on duty, who called a reporter on her day off, who made calls to her sources. Digital editors wrote an alert that we sent to readers’ phones. Other editors wrote headlines and summaries for the web. Then, after that was done, still more editors wrote the headlines for print. We did this each time the story updated, through 12:30 a.m.
In the end, we had 12 reporters and editors involved in a story that played out over eight hours.
Q: How do you achieve work/life balance when you’re on the night shift? Or do you?
Ms. Jakes: The best thing about the night shift is also the worst: the hours. Not having to be in the office until the late afternoon freed up most of the day for me to be with my daughter, who was six months old when I started the job. That was great. Even on the mornings when I was so tired that all I could do was hang out with her and a cup of coffee on the living room rug, it was wonderful to have that bonding time.
Usually the night shift ends around 12:30 a.m., when the final print edition is put to bed, but there were many, many big news nights that kept us at the office later, sometimes even past 3 a.m.
On the very best mornings the baby would let me sleep in until about 8 a.m. My mother would come over in the midafternoon to stay with her when I left for work, and until my husband got home. My husband and my mother got me through this year, and I am grateful for it. We have had to learn to carve out our quality time whenever we can.
Mr. Kenny: I am not a good example of work/life balance! I’ve never married, I have no kids and I have structured my life around my job. It wasn’t something I set out to do when I took my first full-time job in 1977, but it became established fact by the time I was in my 30s.
My mother told me when I was 17 and had decided on a journalism career that I was lucky to do something that I loved, and that has turned out to be true. This past year has been one of the most exhilarating of my career.
That said, since President Trump was elected, I do see less of my friends — and less of New York City itself.
Q: What happened with “covfefe”?
Mr. Kenny: I thought I was seeing things when it popped up on Twitter. And then I sat there looking at Mr. Trump’s feed for 10 minutes or so expecting him to say he had hit “send” by accident. Or to add “just kidding.” If not, surely a member of his staff would see it and delete or fix it. But no.
Ms. Jakes: That tweet came on one of the few nights I left the office early, shortly before midnight, so I got the alert while I was driving home. I sat in my driveway for at least 20 minutes, waiting for Mr. Trump to either add to the covfefe tweet or delete it. (Most of us on the Washington bureau staff get Twitter alerts on our phones both when he tweets and when he deletes the tweets.) When he didn’t, I became worried that something had happened to him. Had he fallen asleep? Did he have a heart attack? Was he called down to the SitRoom? It was weird.
Meanwhile, Steve was in the mothership and decided we needed to storify covfefe, since it was already generating buzz online. Matt Flegenheimer in Washington offered to write.
I did the first edit of the story on my phone from my living room, and Steve did the final edit from the New York newsroom. But even after it was posted — I think around 1:30 or 2 a.m. — I sat up and watched Twitter do its thing with the story and the event as a whole.
It was hilarious. And I was glad that The Times was riding the crest of that news wave.
That’s the night shift in a nutshell.