Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Rewrite’s original sweetheart

The Thomson Financial news service has developed a computer program that, it is said, can write a passable news story in three-tenths of a second.

That’s not bad. But Thomson could have boosted productivity even more if it had lured Phillip J. O’Connor out of retirement.

Lean, bespectacled, soft-spoken and manifestly unassuming, Phil O’Connor was the fastest, cleanest rewrite man in Chicago, a town filled with great and legendary newspaper folk. He retired from the Sun-Times in 1997.

Phil’s long, slender, swift-moving fingers crafted beautifully written, factually correct stories as fast as they unfolded. He was so quick that his desk was equipped with two computer terminals to keep up with him.

Phil had an uncanny sense of not only what the story was but also where it was going. He wrote articles in real time while unloading the legman or woman on the other end of the phone. As soon as he hung up, Phil began dialing into his vast network of sources to fill holes, solicit reaction and advance the story ahead of the competition.

Keeping a watchful eye on the city desk, Phil could tell when I, the city editor, had a new story on deadline with no free reporter to write it. Madly typing away, Phil would nod his head slightly to let me know he soon would be ready for the next assignment.

He was a sweetheart of a rewrite man. And he never needed to be rebooted.