Entering my senior year in college in August 1978, I hired on at the Stockton Record as a part-timer in the sports department.
I wrote my very first prep football game story on an IBM Selectric typewriter and paper. I wrote my second a few days later on a VDT (video display terminal) connected to a mainframe that filled an entire room, but with less storage capacity than a notebook computer today.
That introduction to the world of journalism began with change, and it hasn’t stopped changing since. Nor will it, as today’s switch to retool our online and print editions suggests.
Indeed, technology has a way of turning yesterday into today’s museum exhibit. Think not? In 1998, I went on assignment in McClatchy’s Washington, D.C. bureau. Two different museums that winter – the Smithsonian’s American History Museum on the Capitol Mall and the Newseum across the Potomac in Arlington – displayed as industry dinosaurs the same types of computers I’d broken in on a decade earlier. And that was in the relative infancy of the Internet, when newspapers were still trying to come to grips with the fact that they needed to become total information providers, and that their thinking about the print editions would need to change.
Into the early 1980s, filing stories from the field required carrying a portable typewriter and a suitcase-sized telecopier, an ancestor of the fax machine. It needed six minutes of odor-emitting transmission to reach the office, where someone else would be waiting to retype it into the system. Or, you dictated your story, hoping the person on the other end knew how to spell.
Then came the RadioShack laptops that seemed so high tech at the time and sent the information via a series of high-pitched screams through black rubber cups placed over the ends of the telephone’s receiver. The laptop’s screen had no illumination, meaning we needed to find good lighting just to read and edit whatever we wrote.
Just a decade ago, many laptops still need to connect to a landline to transmit. Now, reporters can go to a Starbucks or anywhere else that offers Wi-Fi to link up and file.
Social media sites including Twitter, Twitter’s Periscope app and Facebook changed the speed and flow of information, and it’s clearly a two-way exchange. People share or link to what we post on modbee.com or on on our Facebook page while reporters frequently use social media to stay updated on issues and events, and to locate people who witness them.
Do you still physically take your paycheck to the bank for deposit? When was the last time you pulled an AAA map out of the glove box to find your way around?
Most folks would answer no to both questions. You can bank by phone, pay bills online and GPS your way to just about anywhere, including the Yosemite back country. You can send photos to friends and relatives without a trip to the post office. Why crank your neck when your new car comes equipped with a camera to keep you from backing over the neighbor’s cat or even the neighbor?
Journalism is no different. The nuts and bolts of reporting and writing remain the same, but the delivery system changes by the minute. It’s now instant and on demand. It’s told in words and videos available in real time in the palm of your hand or on a home computer. If you’re a sports fan, all of your favorite pro teams’ games are televised or streamed online. At the very least, teams have their own apps that update every 30 seconds or so.
That stated, wherever I go, people tell me they can’t envision life without their morning paper as they eat breakfast or sip coffee. Like other old-school newspaper readers, I still like my paper in the morning, too. I read it cover to cover, and do the crossword puzzle, Jumble and other word games. (I leave Sudoku for the mathheads.) And that won’t change. We’re still printing the paper. But print has been on the decline for more than a decade. Every obituary we print represents a former print reader who likely won’t be replaced by a new print reader.
What is changing is the ability of people of all ages to use electronic gadgetry. I recently spoke to a group of retirees ranging in age from 62 to 95 years old. I asked for a show of cellphones and smartphones. Of the 150 or so people there, maybe 20 or 30 didn’t raise their hands. Yes, they still read newspapers, but many are skilled at using their phones and computers to get their information. They can be just as impatient as the 20- and 30-somethings. They, too, want to know – and now. They aren’t so willing to wait until tomorrow morning.
Readers’ needs have changed. Everything changes. I think back to covering what was supposed to be Game 3 of the 1989 World Series between the A’s and Giants at Candlestick Park. The Loma Prieta earthquake struck about 20 minutes before the scheduled first pitch and just like that, it changed the Bay Area forever.
I wrote my column that night by pirating light from the back of a TV truck to see the words on my primitive laptop’s screen. Then I scrambled to find a pay telephone at a Safeway in San Bruno to file, holding the receiver and the black rubber cups together tightly to keep the transmission from breaking up. The column appeared in the newspaper 10 hours later.
Funny, everything seemed so modern and high-tech at the time.