Volume 13, Issue 23 ~ June 9 - 15, 2005

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Burton on The Bay
By Bill Burton

An old timer remembers when newspapers were hot off the presses

It is a newspaper’s duty to print the news and raise hell.
—Chicago Tribune: 1861

In one way or another, the above words printed in that newspaper 144 years ago remain food for thought in newsrooms just about everywhere, but of late it has lost some of its punch. It ain’t fast enough.

News, comments, gossip, pictures, gripes, rumors, information and, yes, much misinformation: It all swirls around us around the clock. People can dial, fax or e-mail a radio or TV talk show, hook up to a chat room on the Web — and raise hell to their hearts’ content. They’re seeing, hearing or reading their hell-raising — and that of others — instantaneously.

Can Old Media survive in this New Media World?

At first, news hounds pooh-poohed suggestions that newspapers wouldn’t always be first, foremost and most accurate. Now, newspapers are challenged on all fronts — and there are fewer of them.

I’m tossing in no towel yet. Newspapering has been my life for 59 years, which is far enough back that I’m among the fortunate who were around to enjoy its heyday, before most newspapers, big and small, switched from primarily news gatherers to primarily for-profit businesses. Those were the days.

Tools of the Old Trade
Last week, in response to a reader’s request, we covered what things were like in the back shops of newspapers before the cold type days of the 1970s. This week, it’s the newsrooms.

In the late ’40s, when I switched from radio news to a medium-sized New England newspaper, “scoop” was the byword in any city with competing papers. If the other paper got the story first, no excuse was acceptable. Editors never accepted that anyone on a beat couldn’t get everything first — every time.

With the competition gone in most cities, so are the scoops.

Gone also is the typewriter, a dependable device that never crashed at deadline or in storms. As long as it had a ribbon, a story could come out. If a key was malfunctioning, no problem: Just pencil in that letter, number or punctuation mark. Penciling in omissions was standard operating procedure, for newsrooms seemed to have the oldest typewriters in town, and alongside many of them was a paste pot.

Stories were typed on 81&Mac218;2-by-11-inch sheets of paper, and not the quality paper we run through computer printers. Often, it was leftover newsprint, the stuff that newspapers are made of, custom cut into tablets in the print shop. Reporters used the paste pot to cut and paste paragraphs and entire pages together.

On a deadline, not infrequently, a page with just a paragraph or two was ripped from the typewriter and a fresh page inserted to keep the copy flowing. No time for the luxury of referring back to what had already been written. Those words were gone. Maybe a few paragraphs lingered on the editor’s desk, a few more had moved to the linotype machine and still more were being proofed — all while new words were still pouring out of the old LC Smith.

At some other desk was someone else who had seen snippets of the story and was trying to write a headline for it so that it could also be set in type by deadline. In pre-computer times, we called it chaining.

Somehow it all came together.
Of course there were times when the deadlines passed and reporters could play in the manner of contemporary journalists: Sipping coffee and leisurely pecking out whole stories, pasting them together to be edited, linotyped and proof-read together. But that usually was new stuff for another day. Time copy it was called.

Stop the Presses!
Depending on the size of the publication, there were stop-the-press occasions to accommodate a hot news story, to update an old one or perhaps to correct a glaring error. Errors occurred more than readers realized, but they were quickly corrected. And pity the news hound who made the mistake that stopped the presses. He’d be writing obituaries and AA meetings for a month or two.

It was when the presses were stopped for a breaking story that a newsroom was at its finest. It mattered not whether the paper was big or small; everything had to fall into place and with precise timing. The presses would be churning out the daily edition while an editor starting to think about the next day’s paper would get word, say from a beat man, of a story that couldn’t wait.

All available hands would be dispatched, leaving a few in the newsroom so those on the scene could phone in their versions of what was happening. A big staff could cover all angles, while a smaller one would be spread thin. Either way, the words would flow via phone to rewrite men who typed them as the reporter made up a story on the fly from his notes.

Several rewrite men might be taking different accounts from different reporters, and fitting them all into a readable story would be the man on the desk, the nerve center. Often, he was the senior editor, and he had to be fast. In both newsroom and back shop, things were like a pit stop at Daytona.

Everyone was a cog in the wheel. Trucks would be waiting to rush the papers to vendors and homes, and the first paper to hit the streets would be the winner.

The Scoop
Today, news hounds remain at the center of newspapering, but everywhere they are backed by technology hardly dreamed of several decades ago. Practically from the site of a breaking story, reporters can e-mail their accounts to the newsroom via their laptops. They arrive at the scene with their own cell phones.

In the old days, any beat reporter worth his salt made it a point to know the location of at least one pay phone in every nook of his assigned beat. Broke as he might be, he always had nickels in his pocket, just in case. What good was the best of scoops if there was no way of getting it back to the newsroom?

He who ruled the phones often ruled the roost — like editor Paul Howe of the small Bennington Banner, who scooped the big city papers from New York and Boston in August of ’03 when Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as president the day after Warren Harding died suddenly in California.

Nearly 50 years later when I worked at the Banner for a few years, old timers still talked about how Howe (who served his cub reporter days at the Baltimore Sun) sped to the Coolidge home in Plymouth, Vermont. He grabbed and wouldn’t let go of the only operative phone in the small hamlet as the new president’s father, a justice of the peace, swore in his son.

It was a big phone bill for a small paper, but how often does a country boy have the chance to scoop The New York Times and Boston Herald? Today, Howe wouldn’t stand a chance.

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