On the EDge: News reporting before the Internet

OPINION – A few days ago, a friend of mine who works in the print media posted a comment on Facebook that got me thinking.

The post?

“How did reporters ever work without Internet? Seriously. (Counting blessings now that Internet service has returned.)”

Having come from that era, it was interesting to reflect and ponder just how much things have changed.

Back in the old days, we inked-stained wretches pounded out our stories on ancient manual typewriters. Seriously, even though I worked at a major metropolitan newspaper in the mid-‘70s, we used these very, very old typewriters. Mine was a 1923 Underwood that must have weighed 20 pounds.

The keys—there was no keyboard—were at an incline and you had to punch them really hard because if you didn’t, the carbon copy underneath might not be terribly clear.

My friend’s post went on to discuss how she had difficulty hunting for a telephone number she needed.

Back in the old days, there were two vital tools that we reporters clung to dearly. The

First was a telephone book. Back then, most people were listed. We even had a reverse-lookup telephone book, with all of the listings sorted by telephone numbers instead of names. The other tool that was vital was our own private phonebooks, filled with the telephone numbers and addresses of the various sources we would interview for stories. Those phonebooks were well-guarded and, usually, a reporter had at least two copies, one they kept at home in a very safe place, another they carried with them just about everywhere they went. Often, there was a third book, stored in a desk at the office. It was not unheard of for reporters to sell their phonebooks when they retired or switched to a different beat. Seriously.

But, it also reminded me of how long and laborious the job of reporting could be.

Since we had no Internet, the office was filled with the latest reference books, almanacs, press guides, and other source materials. We kept our own file copies of newspaper and magazine stories associated with our beat and always kept an eye on the wire service reports from the Associated Press and United Press International.

The folks who worked in the various PR departments and agencies around town were invaluable. While their primary job was, of course, to promote the positive spin on the team, athlete, celebrity, politician, or whoever it was they represented, they also realized that to maintain credibility with the reporters and public, they also had to have a treasure trove of information at their fingertips and deliver it straight up.

There were times when they knew the story was not going to be terribly flattering. Perhaps the team’s best hitter was in a slump; maybe the actor’s film was tanking at the box office; or, there was, if you can stretch your imagination a little, a scandal surrounding their politician. It didn’t matter, they would find the information you needed as you fleshed out your story or point you in the right direction. As much as we all grumbled about having to deal with flaks, as the PR folks were called, we knew that the good ones were invaluable and if, for some reason, we couldn’t lay our hands on exactly what we wanted, they could.

In fact, some of these folks were so good that we would often get updates to their annual press guides throughout the season as some of the pertinent records and career milestones changed.

Now, of course, reporters can gather stats, info, and quotes via email, Internet messaging systems, social media platforms, and myriad outlets.

And, while the phonebook may have gone the way of the dinosaur, the accumulation of private home telephone numbers, email addresses, and cellphone numbers is vital, the only difference being, of course, that you no longer need to lug around a phonebook because all of this info is stored quite nicely on a reporter’s smartphone or android.

This new technology has also made life a lot easier in other ways.

Back then, if a reporter needed to file a story away from the office, they would have to either have access to these huge, awkward machines called Telecopiers, which would transmit a page over the telephone in five minutes, or dictate it to some guy working the desk. Now? A reporter simply writes the story, hits a “send” button and, in seconds, it arrives at the copy desk via the Internet.

The photography process was far more complicated. I remember when we at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner started sending our sports photog on the road with the L.A. Rams. It was a great gig and our photo ace, the late James Roark, relished it. He had a portable darkroom he would take with him, which consisted of a light-proof bag he would develop his film in on the plane ride home. By the time the plane landed, his negatives were developed and dried and he had a good idea which ones would be used in the next day’s paper.

Now, of course, there are cameras that have a smart link to a shooter’s cellphone, that in turn links to the Internet. Almost as soon as the photo is shot, it can be posted online. Film? Does anybody remember using film?

There are, of course, inherent dangers.

For example, owning a cellphone with an onboard camera does not make you a photographer any more than sitting at a computer keyboard qualifies you as a writer. No matter what your friends or family members say, you are neither a photographer, nor a writer, and are certainly not qualified to dispatch a news report. I mean, seriously, just because you own a wrench doesn’t mean you are a plumber, right?

Then, of course, there are any number of spurious websites where these wannabe journalists can post their stuff, often without context, fact checks, decent editing, or reputable sources, which means we spend a lot more time at Snopes.com than we really should.

Yeah, it’s a different world today as far as preparing a news report is concerned.

There are a lot more tools available, for sure, but that also means that these tools don’t necessarily translate into a better or more accurate report.

Of course, looking at what is happening in the media at large today, accuracy is a commodity that seems to be sorely lacking.

No bad days!


Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews, @EdKociela

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2013, all rights reserved.

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  • My Evil Twin June 5, 2013 at 11:14 am

    Good article, Ed! I remember the days when the media, whether it was printed or over the air waves, actually differentiated between “reporting” and “opinion.” Too bad those days are long gone.

  • Roy J June 5, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    Pretty awesome, Ed! I have G.K. Chesterton’s ‘Illustrated London New’s’ volume 1 (of 10) sitting in my desk right now, and you are so right about the difference between journalism then and now!

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