The first time I came across the notion of an electronic newspaper, I was standing outside the Star Tribune carrying a picket sign.
It was 1980. The Newspaper Guild — following the lead of other unions — was on strike. One of the reasons my union, the Guild, was striking was the “issue” of electronic journalism. The Guild wanted technical language in the contract that would cover the work of print journalists to cover whatever the future would be.
I found the whole thing absurd.
“Electronic journalism!” I shouted at all who would listen. “It’ll never happen. Why are we out here? What’s wrong with you people?”
“Shut up and carry your sign,” my brothers and sisters said.
Farewell, typewriter-and-glue-pot journalists
I was of the last generation of typewriter-and-glue-pot journalists.
Journalistic heaven was having my reporting done and sitting at an Olivetti upright, writing, drinking coffee and smoking Marlboros.
When I was done writing, I’d paste the pages of the typewritten story together and pass it on to the editors, who would make changes in my poetry with No. 2 lead pencils. The edited copy would be sent to Linotype operators, who would re-type the story in lead and pass it on to printers who would set the type into heavy frames, which ended up on presses.
After the presses rolled, the paper would be moved by mailers to trucks and hauled by Teamsters to distribution points and then delivered by kids to doorsteps.
It was a complex operation. But it also was surprisingly fast. Deadlines in the glue-pot era were much later than they are at today’s technologically sophisticated newspaper plants.
It was also a wonderfully messy system. At day’s end, journalists would go home covered in ink stains, pencil smears and glue splotches.
Our polyester trousers would be pockmarked with holes from hot cigarette ashes.
But the newspaper had been delivered. Democracy was safe for another day.
The idea that people would someday get much of their news by reading it on computer screens was as ludicrous to me as the notion of smoke-free newsrooms.
Electronic experiments date to 1980s
“Fooling around with something we didn’t quite understand” is how John Cowles describes what was going on then. “Things were changing. It was an interesting idea to me: A newspaper without the paper. I do remember, even 30 or 40 years ago, some of us wondered if the day would come when people could have a printer in their home and print out their own newspaper.”
Over the years, much changed in the newsroom. Computers replaced typewriters. Newer computers replaced older computers. Those highly skilled typesetters were high-teched out of jobs.
Adults replaced kids as carriers. Air filters were brought in to newsrooms to purge the air of cigarette smoke. Or at least move it around a little.
Then, smokers were herded into a small room to indulge their habit.
Finally, the small room was closed and the smokers were kicked outdoors.
Still, there’s that wonderful sound of a newspaper landing on doorsteps every morning. How can anyone start the day without a newspaper and a cup of coffee?
As it turns out, the Cowles clan, which eventually sold the Star Tribune, probably was just a few decades ahead of its time.
Now, John Cowles is an investor in this undertaking, and for several days now, I’ve been an eee-lectronic journalist.
The basics are no different from the days of smoke-filled newsrooms.
We journalists ask questions and report what we learn.
It’s just a little tidier now.