Things have changed in the newspaper biz
In cleaning out my storage cabinets, I came across one of the textbooks I used in my first journalism classes. Modern Newspaper Editing, written by Gene Gilmore and Robert Root, published in 1971, was the bible for us wannabe newsies coming of age in the era of Watergate and Vietnam. Rereading its pages more than 40 years later had me shaking my head and giggling a lot. This is where I started, but things are certainly different now. For example:
- The book’s wisdom is addressed to “the young newsman.” All references are to “he,” and the photos show all-male, all-white staffs, dressed in white shirts and neckties, most of them wearing black-framed glasses. Women were generally relegated to the “women’s section,” where they wrote about social gatherings, weddings, childcare, and recipes. Gilmore and Root note that “today’s more active and educated women” are branching out into other activities and some papers are changing the name to “family pages.”
- Computers were still too big to fit on a desk and used only for a few functions, such as billing. The authors speculated about the possibility of newspapers completely written and designed by computers. And then, they add: “But if newspapers come to that, perhaps the subscriber should have a computer in the home to read the paper! In fact, why print the whole paper at all? Let one computer transmit the file of information and let the individual subscriber program his computer to print only the news he most needs.” They thought this was a fantasy, but we can do it now. On our phones!
- The most important tools for the copy desk, where the paper was put together, were pencils, scissors, and paste pots. Editors designed the pages on paper and pasted them together. They edited in pencil, using symbols to indicate paragraphs, capital letters, additions, deletions, etc. They had their own language. “Stet,” for example, meant to ignore any markings and leave the words as they were originally written. If an editor needed to insert a section into a story, he literally cut the page apart and pasted in the new section. (I’m saying “he” and “they,” but I did this myself for many years.)
- The text devotes several pages to the writing of headlines. Not only did we need to come up with the words, but we had to make them fit by counting the letters. You got so many spaces per line. Most letters were counted as one but fat ones like m’s and w’s were 1.5, and skinny ones like “I’s” were .5. It changed when you went into upper case. It took forever to write a headline.
- They talk a lot about photography. In those days, we used hulking cameras with multiple attachments to take pictures with black and white film, 24 or 36 shots a roll. Then we retired to the darkroom to “develop” the film and make the prints in trays of toxic chemicals. After the pictures dried, the editor marked them up with grease pencils to indicate where they should be cropped and where they were going in the paper. It was a slow, messy business.
- Ah, but back to computers. On page 358, we read, “What, then, are the imminent prospects for use of computers and more sophisticated mechanization? Ronald White, director of production and engineering for the Scripps-Howard Newspapers, has envisioned hooking the reporter’s typewriter directly to the computer. It would store the copy temporarily during editing and then blend the desk’s corrections into the original tape as it headed for type… In a much-quoted speech given in the early sixties to both the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Magazine Publishers Association, an automation pioneer pictured a great change in editorial tools. Editorial copy will be fed into a computer-like system upon arrival in our office—whether it comes in by wire, is typed in by a reporter, or is called up from the morgue (paper files of old stories and research). Copy will be manipulated electronically; displayed on TV screens that will be a part of every editorial desk; and dummied by manipulating the information on the screen with the use of light-pencils and light-erasers. . .”
I’m still waiting for the light pencils and light erasers, but White’s dreams have come true. Boy, how this business has changed. However, the advice about writing and the wisdom in my other text, Interpretative Reporting by Curtis D. MacDougall, 1972 edition, still holds true. This book talks about how to find ideas, gather information and distill it into readable stories. Beginnings, endings, specificity, accuracy, style, and ethics—these have not changed. Writing is still writing.
Both books were updated for future editions, but these 1971 and 1972 volumes are the ones I was trained with. Even the newer editions from the ‘80s and ‘90s can’t keep up with the changes that keep happening.
The world is very different today from what it was when I was an intern doing community calendars and “cook of the week” features for the Milpitas Post in 1973. (If you’re thinking, “God, she’s old,” hush. It’s only a number.) Gilmore and Root made their predictions from the 1970s. What are your predictions for the future of the news business? What will it be like in 2025? How about 2050? Think about it.
Now go write.
>Our local newspaper recently welcomed its third new editor and is on its third publisher since we moved to the Oregon Coast in 1996. You’d think the paper would show massive differences from one regime to the next. I worked there for a while, and I can testify that the people are very different, but the paper isn’t. If you looked through back issues from the ’90s, you would find the same sections organized the same way they are now, the layout pretty much the same, and the content frustratingly similar, with only the names changing. New features are rarely introduced.
Is our paper unique? Not at all. I bring this up because most newspapers use the same template for every issue. As readers, we like that. We like to know where to find the sports schedule, the cartoons, the book reviews or whatever we want to read. Sticking with the same pattern also makes it easier for the editors, graphic artists and advertising staff to put each issue together in the limited time they have.
As freelance writers, we need to offer ideas that fit into the newspaper’s framework. Otherwise they are not likely to be accepted. They might be good, but the editor won’t know where to put them. Perhaps after you have proven yourself with several articles, you might suggest something new, but don’t exchange to break the pattern overnight. Look for what the editor needs and provide it. That’s the path to breaking in.