Posted in Behind the News

In a ‘flash’: Alerting news of the president’s impeachment

, by John Daniszewski

At 8:34 p.m. ET on Wednesday, AP pushed out the news, “President Donald Trump impeached by US House of Representatives.”

Prepared in advance and transmitted by editor Eileen Putman in Washington within seconds of the completed vote on the House floor, those nine words comprised one of the rarest of stories in AP’s history: They moved as a “flash.”

AP’s internal filing guidelines state, “In the case of exceptionally important news, AP may send a ‘Flash.’”

That means that the news will move across the internet with the fastest possible priority, overriding any other news being transmitted by AP in the moment.  

In the digital era, this priority is not normally seen by the end user, but it is contained in the metadata of the story — the information about a story that only a computer reads.

Editors determined last week that the third impeachment of a U.S. president warranted a “flash,” a designation given to stories of transcendent or historical importance.

Other news that was important, but not necessarily transcendent or historic, traditionally would have carried the slightly less urgent status of “Bulletin.”

However, the term Bulletin has been phased out by AP in recent years. Instead, the first word on all important breaking news is slugged simply, APNewsAlert. And more important news alerts will be sent out to subscribers to AP’s mobile app with an audible alarm, a so-called “noisy” alert.

Nevertheless, the concept of a “flash” still excites AP filers. The word itself stirs the adrenaline. It still means sending the most important, historic news at AP’s fastest priority.

To push the button on a flash becomes something to reminisce on or to brag about years later because one is part of the history. 

A collection of flashes amassed by my predecessor as standards editor, Tom Kent, included two truly transcendent ones, on Sept. 11, 2001, when AP moved two flashes when each of the two World Trade Center towers collapsed in the terrorist attack.

But others he cited did not quite reach the same level.

_ Nov. 6, 2012 – Barack Obama re-elected president

_ Dec. 18, 2011 – North Korea says supreme leader Kim Jong Il has died

_ Feb. 11, 2011 – Egyptian VP says President Hosni Mubarak steps down

_ 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 opposition leader Benazir Bhutto has died following a suicide bombing

_ Oct. 14, 2003 – China launches manned spacecraft

The AP has been sending flashes for at least 113 years, and probably longer.

According to a 1946 edition of the internal publication AP World, managers sought to standardize the use of the “flash,” in an order that went out to all news wire operators on May 1, 1906, two weeks after competitive reports from the Great San Francisco Earthquake had riveted newspaper readers across the country.

“News matter of supreme importance which would necessitate the issuance of extra editions should be sent first as a “flash,’” in a message not to exceed ten words, and should go on all leased wires,” the order said. “Such “flash” must take precedence over all bulletins, must go upon each wire …, must be sent instantly upon the development of the news, and must never exceed ten words in length.”

(They must have been really serious about that 10-word limit.)

Teletype machines or teletype operators would attach “bells” to flashes — meaning they would literally ring in the newsrooms of AP’s members and customers when the alert was printing out, setting the flashes apart for the normal din and clatter of the teletype machines. Five bells were standard for flashes, but some enthusiastic operators might add even more. When the bells rang, editors would race over to the machines to find out what had just happened.

Through the 20th century, flashes were sent rarely, perhaps once or twice a year, and some years could pass with no flashes at all.

Here is a sampling of some other notable AP flashes:

_ 1941 - U.S. declares war on Japan

_ 1944 - Eisenhowers Headquzarters [sic] announces allies land in France

_ 1963 - Two priests who were with Kennedy say he is dead of bullet wounds

_ 1969 - Eagle told to go for a landing

_ 1969 - Astronauts land on moon

_ 2005 - The Vatican says Pope John Paul II has died.

One other flash, which may seem particularly relevant in light of Wednesday night’s events, was sent on Jan. 4, 2007.

_ Jan. 4, 2007 - The House elects Nancy Pelosi first woman speaker.

This screengrab from Dec. 18, 2019, shows the AP "flash" that alerted President Donald Trump was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives. (AP Photo)