Sunday, February 1, 2009

Life before technology

When I started in newspapers the typewriter was on life support. At Canada College in California and at MSU the student newspapers were still using the legendary typewriter, copy paper and glue pot systems.

That system involved typing your copy on paper with floating wood chips on it, gluing the pages together until a decent story looked like the Dead Sea Scrolls and then ending it with a the mark -30- to indicate it was done.

Once glued together, you went back over your copy and made changes and corrections with a series of "copy-editing" marks. There were marks to switch the order of words, add words, add punctuation and sometimes you just added lines of copies with a little "v" mark to indicate where it started. A period was an "x" with a circle around it, I think. There must be an example of this in the Newseum.

A copy editor would then read that mess, make their changes and send it to the composing room. Linotype was gone at most places when I started in 1977, but there were a few holdouts.

After copy was set in a strip of film, the "back shop" would then fit it into a hole in the layout marked by an editor. The copy was waxed and stuck down on a layout sheet. Plates were burned and sent to the press room and put on the presses.

Almost no one had a cellphone or a pager in 1977 in the news business. My off campus job (other than being a bouncer at the old Coral Gables) was for rewriting high school sports at the Lansing State Journal. I worked for Dave Matthews and Edward "Ed" Senyczko, the sports editor. It was trying work made more trying by the IBM Selectric type setting system at the paper.

Going from the glue pot to the IBM system was extremely frustrating. Under the IBM system there were a series of codes you had to type at the end of a sentence or paragraph so that the type would be set correctly.

One time ol' Ed came streaming out of the composing room with one of my typeset stories yelling at me because the coding I put on the paper told the film making machine to set the type one letter per line. He was holding a sheet of film about 20-feet long with one letter on each line.

"That's about $10 in film," he yelled at me. At the time I was making $5 an hour doing the sports rewrite and I was hoping he wasn't going to charge me for the film. He didn't.

By the time I arrived at The Oakland Press they had an ATEX system which was a primitive computer word processing program. It was the first time I had worked on a system that didn't include paper and it caused me some problems at first.

The annoying habit of the system to suddenly blink off and take all your copy with it into cyberspace was just one problem. "Remember to keep saving your copy," the editors would remind us.

It was a challenge getting information back to the office from a breaking news scene in the days before cellphones. Yes, there were sometimes pay phones nearby, but my preferred system involved begging residents to let me use their home phones.

"I'm from the Oakland Press, can I borrow your phone to call the paper?." Most of the time people would do that. At that time the OP was an afternoon paper and we could get breaking news into the paper well into the morning.

I was teamed with a woman reporter there who I later worked with at the Flint Journal. Because of the nature of the stuff she and I covered (cops and courts) we got the nickname "Gloom and Doom." I couldn't tell you today who was "Gloom" and who was "Doom." She and I still talk and she is a reader of this blog.

We alternated between being the reporter and the rewrite person and it really worked well. Calling in a story on deadline, writing it in your head before you ever touched a keyboard, was a real challenge. It could also be frustrating to the rewrite person as you were constantly revising or remembering details that you had forgotten to begin with.

It was a skill that helped me later in my career. As night police reporter I was only on deadline on Friday nights (Saturday was a morning paper, as was Sunday, but the rest of the week was afternoons at the Flint Journal). So working solo on Mondays to Thursdays, I would often start writing the story in my head on the way back from a breaking news event so that by the time I sat at my desk the story would flow out on the computer screen.

The biggest new technology I had at the Journal, compared to the Oakland Press, was a huge bag phone that I was given when I started in 1989. This was an early cell phone that came with its own suitcase and plug in power source. No more begging a homeowner for a phone.

I also had a pager, something I had not been given at the Oakland Press. At the OP when you were out on an assignment you were supposed to check in frequently in case there were new instructions or a new assignment.

Over the years, I came to view the pager and phone as not just a necessity, but as a curse. "My electronic leashes" I would tell people. Now there was no excuse to be out of touch. An editor could always find you and that's not always a good thing especially when you are off duty.

One thing I always carried was a police scanner. The Michigan State Police issued permits to carry them to reporters because under state law here they are illegal to carry in an automobile. In obtaining the permits, you had to sign an affidavit that even though you were carrying it in your car that you would not respond to the scene of an event or use anything you heard on it in a public account. Everyone kind of winked at that. No one ever asked me to show them my permit either.

It was sad to me when the composing room went away a number of years ago. It used to be fun on a late Friday night or early Saturday morning to wander back after deadline and watch George, Jerry and the others put together the newspaper one waxed column at a time.

There was a life to it. Even on the second floor of the FJ, when those big old presses started up you could feel a slight vibration in your feet and the building. To me it was a sad day when they shut down forever and moved to the big building across the parking lot.

When I would walk outside about 1:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, my shift complete, the parking lot would be choked with rusty vans, the route drivers, waiting for the Saturday papers to come off the presses. Just a few hours later, one would be delivered to my home in Lapeer.

"The Daily Miracle," some of us used to call the newspaper. Miracle, because so many things had to come together each day to make it happen.

No doubt technology has improved the speed of production, although it completely decimated the ability to include late breaking news in the printed product. Each time we upgraded in technology the final morning deadlines were rolled back until at one point 8-8:30 a.m. (where once it had been 11 a.m. or later) was the point of no return.

Technology broke the traditional newspaper rhythm. Newspaper employees came and went as the rhythm of production dictated. Even the newsroom rhythm changed. In an old typewriter room the crescendo of typing leading up to the deadline was exciting. When the deadline arrived the typing would dramatically taper off and then stop. Silent keyboards are just not the same.

If I think hard I can even remember the sound of paper being pulled quickly from a typewriter roller.

Technology, in my opinion, is neither good or bad, it just is. But for those of us who started out on paper it did take a lot of the fun and excitement out of the business.


mcwflint said...

I miss the pleasure of crumpling the paper I'd pull from the typewriter when my fingers couldn't quite capture the story I thought I had.

Rubber cement, pica poles, fences, and that big nail for spiked stories ...

Thanks for the memories

Jim of L-Town said...

You just reminded me that I'll need to do a story about the copy runs at the State News.

A big rolled up wand of copy in the hand of a student reporter who really only wanted to find the nearest bar (Peanut Barrel) and get drunk.

Anonymous said...

what is that orange thing in the picture? technology has greatly improved our lives. newspapers spent too long trying to resist, now they are paying the price, plain and simple. people at my paper who know what's up are constantly at war with the old timers and their ink-stained hands. bah!

Jim of L-Town said...

Technology, I believe is a double-edged sword. Yes, it has done great things, but it has not always improved our lives.

We have too many obese children, there is dangerous, easy access to children by predators, technology makes news faster, but not always better or more accurate, in fact, one could argue that the speed of the Internet has loosened the brakes and double checks on news copy.

Couple that with the loss of many, many experienced editors and reporters and you have a recipe for mistakes and errors far above the former model.

But as I said in my original article:

"Technology, in my opinion, is neither good or bad, it just is. But for those of us who started out on paper it did take a lot of the fun and excitement out of the business."

I know that we dinosaurs have contributed to the slow approach to the Internet, but let's not forget it took 50 years and more for the car, which replaced the horse and buggy, to end up with seat belts, air bags and other safety devices.

In time, the Internet, which is actually in its Stanley Steamer and Model T days, will deal with the safety issues that cause concern today. But it won't be today and it won't be tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

technology has greatly improved our lives, and newspapers have been slow to change.

but my hind end was saved many a time by a sharp-eyed backshop person who noticed an error and brought it to my attention BEFORE a 100,000 copies were made.

it was also routinely saved by a good rewrite person or copy editor.

de-layer all those people out of a news operation, and you get ... blogs.

faster, certainly. better? not always. present company excepted james ...


Jerry said...

As a former backshop person, your "waxing" poetic about the days of actually putting a paper together by hand brings back lots of good memories. It was exciting every day to help put together the so called "miracle on First Street". We developed some unique and personal relationships with reporters and copy editors alike. Although it was no place for a nervous person, and tempers flared from time to time, the first copies of the finished product made it worthwhile. However, you had no time to enjoy it as the next edition was already on deadline. Looking back, I feel lucky to have been a part of it. Dinosaur, maybe..but, I'd do it all over again.