by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
December 25, 2008
MY BACK PAGES: WATCHING MY CRAFT CHANGE OVER 30 YEARS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- I got my first job in journalism at the age of 18 in the spring of 1980. I was a freshman in college and landed a night shift gig at WSPR, a radio station in Springfield, Mass.
News came over an Associated Press teletype machine at 65 words a minute. Changing the heavily inked ribbons was always a chore, not to mention making sure the paper didn't run out.
Stories were typed on battered old manual typewriters that dated back to the 1940s.
Computers? Still a new-fangled technology that hadn't yet seeped down to this level of the business.
The Internet? There were only a few hundred people using it. If you needed to look up an address, you got a phone book or a city directory. If you needed to confirm a stray fact, you pulled out The World Almanac.
They were still using reel-to-reel tape recorders, and a razor blade and Scotch tape were your tools for editing audio. It was still an analog world, with dials and meters and black telephones with dials.
In the fall of 1985, when I started working in newspapers, video display terminals were cutting-edge technology. Two years later, I went out and got my first computer - a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100 laptop. With its built-in 300 baud modem, I could file a story anyplace I could find a pay phone.
Cellphones? That was as futuristic as the communicators they used on "Star Trek."
There were still a few smokers in the first city room I worked in. The barroom downstairs was still a place where you could find reporters between shifts. The building also shuddered just a little from the giant presses when they fired up, and the stairwells were coated with a thin film of ink.
That first newspaper company I worked for - the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram and Evening Gazette - had four morning and six afternoon editions and a dozen bureaus in the county. There were two separate news staffs, and even though they worked for the same company, the competition was still fierce.
One of my several jobs was working in the morgue - the newspaper's library - where we still clipped stories out of each day's edition and filed them away in envelopes. When a reporter or editor needed background on a subject, my job was to retrieve the right folders with the right clippings in a room filled with hundreds of cabinets with files that went back decades.
Pneumatic tubes brought pictures up to the composing room, and page proofs came down to the copy desk the same way. The darkroom was just that, a dark room filled with a dozen photo enlargers and photographers rushing to make prints on deadline. I eventually learned how to do darkroom work and how to go from taking the film out of the camera to producing a finished print in under 30 minutes. The photos from the AP came one at a time from a LaserPhoto printer, in eight-minute intervals. Waiting for photos was a constant hassle.
The old photographers I encountered then were old enough to have used Speed Graphics - the bulky, hard-to-focus 4 x 5-inch cameras that were the newspaper standard from the 1920s to the 1960s.
The old compositors I encountered then were old enough to remember linotypes and the smell of melting lead.
The old editors I encountered then were old enough to remember pastepots and black pencils and making and remaking a newspaper on the fly with a few written instructions and a lot of teamwork in the mechanical departments.
Pagination - making pages on a computer - was just starting to creep into use. I remember the first such unit - a Mac Plus - which was used to make graphics. Within 10 years of seeing that Mac for the first time, I would be making pages on a computer. The compositors - the wizards with Exacto knives that could do just about anything you asked, just don't touch the type, please - were out of a job.
Automation changed lots of things. I was replaced by a computer terminal in the paper's morgue. Indexing was now done with a few keystrokes, not with a heavy steel straight-edge ruler for tearing pages. Digital photography made the darkroom obsolete. The teletype printers disappeared, and wire service news came flying into the mainframe computers at thousands of words a minute.
And now I feel as ancient as the people I met when I started out, the tribe that itself started out in the 1940s and 1950s, when newspapers were king and the work that reporters did was the stuff of movies.
Twenty years ago this month, I went through my first buyout. The T & G had been sold two years before, and changes were in the works. Being a junior member of the staff who lashed three part-time jobs into something of a living, I was thrown overboard immediately. But I was struck by how many people, the elders of the paper that I looked up to and learned from, chose to take a buyout and leave rather than stick around and face an uncertain future. Most of that generation left, and I got my first education on the harshness of the newspaper business.
The morning and evening papers merged the following year. The T & G's bureaus started to disappear. The presses moved out of the hulking old building on Franklin Street and went to a remote site a few miles away. The papers were sold again, this time to The New York Times Co. They eliminated zoned editions this year and the paper is struggling to survive.
Since that bleak Yuletide two decades ago, I've been through three more newspaper sales. I've become an elder, talking about the old days of afternoon papers, pasting-up pages, teletypes and darkrooms to a generation that Googles phone numbers and needs MapQuest to find an address. And I've watched my profession go from fat and sassy to threadbare and dying in one generation.
I'm still young enough to be a bridge between the analog and digital eras, and still looking forward to the shape of journalism to come. The tools we have now to tell stories were barely dreamed of when I started out, but I recognize how important they are and I am working to master them. We just have to remember that the need to tell stories is primal, and that storytellers will always be needed.
What will the young reporters I work with now be saying when they look back at their careers 20 years from now? Will they be talking about that gruff and crabby gray-bearded editor they had as their first mentor? The rickety first-generation iMacs they use to write their stories? The lack of reliable Internet and cellphone service? Or will they talk about working in newspapers at a time when they became quaint relics of a bygone age?
My love for the printed page is still abiding, but it's hard to remember what it was like before the Internet, before desktop computers, before digital cameras and voice recorders, before the avalanche of data that pours from the Web each day, before the 24-hour news cycle, before all the changes that I have seen in nearly three decades of broadcast, print and online journalism. The past is a nice place to visit, but the future is still the place I hope to see.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.