That time I gave a newspaper history lesson to Elon journalism students

A few weeks ago Kenn Gaither, associate dean and professor in Elon University’s School of Communications, asked if I would be willing to speak to his entry level journalism class, Comm 100, about the evolution and future of newspapers and future of print and journalism in general. The assignment landed around lunchtime today. I spoke for close to 30 minutes then took questions. I tried not to bore the hell of them – my time in newspapers stretches back to almost ancient history after all. But they hunt in there and at the end peppered me with a ton of excellent questions. The future of the republic is in good hands with future citizens like these.

I told them I would post my presentation here, so …

As I was talking to Kenn about this class and my presentation today we discussed very generally the evolution of journalism as a direction for me to take. When I think about it, this (holds up smartphone) is the single biggest change in journalism over the past four decades. I’ll try to touch a little on how we got here.

The timing of this presentation is coincidental but fortunate. This past weekend I attended my 40th high school reunion. So add 40 years to where most of you are now and think about it for a second or two. Forty years is a long time. A lot can happen in 40 years. The things you’re learning now in college might not be applicable at all to the career you have four decades from now. Keep that in mind during your studies here at Elon.

About 40 years ago I was where you are now, a first-year student in an introductory class in communications on a college campus. At the time, I thought I might go into broadcasting. I figured to be a play-by-play announcer for basketball, football or baseball on radio or TV. That was the plan.

Everything changes. And my going into print journalism was the beginning. I was always a writer first and foremost. It’s where I got my start in journalism and while I was in the business – up until 10 months ago – it’s where I remained.  My heart is still there. I still write for a living here at Elon and a few times a week online.

So let me say first that nothing beats writing and reporting in terms of rewards – I don’t care what format you’re doing it in. Newsrooms themselves are tremendous energy centers. Every day is a theme park ride. You laugh, you cry, you yell, you shake your fist at the sky, you mutter, you turn upside down, you spin around, you get a little queasy, you learn things, you tell sick jokes, you scream obscenities, your heart rate goes up, your attention to good life decisions goes out the window.

It’s exhausting, it’s heartening, it’s educational, it’s maddening and it’s fun – all at the same time.

Yeah, I walked away from it in November after 35 years of providing in print just about every kind of story imaginable. Starting way back in the 1970s when I was still in high school I began writing stories for newspapers – the little weekly newspaper in my hometown was my first stop. I covered everything from features, county government, court and crime — I also wrote a sports column for a weekly newspaper in another nearby town.

me first column

My weekly column for the King Times-News. I think I got about 20 bucks a shot.

My other newspaper jobs as a kid included pasting up ads and stamping the addresses on each newspaper that was to be mailed to a subscriber. I wrote stories in longhand and someone operating a typesetter punched it in to a machine that spit it out in column-sized strips which would be pasted up on a large make-up sheet by people using sharp little knives called Exactos. Wax was applied to make sure the strips stayed in place.

But sometimes they slipped anyway en route to the camera that produced negatives used to make plates then placed on a press to assemble the entire deal into a newspaper. It was a long process not unlike building a car piece by piece on a Detroit assembly line.

By admitting all of this I’m pretty much confirming what most of you already guessed, I’m older than dirt. But as a starting point I thought it was important to let you know where I began. It’s from another era of newspapering and journalism, one that in many ways you would never recognize. The business has changed a lot over the past 40-plus years. Those Exacto knives are long gone, as are the electric typewriters we used at my first full-time daily newspaper stop in Reidsville. Also gone are paste-up departments and photo dark rooms. When I stop and consider photo dark rooms – where photographers developed their own film in a hazardous chemical stew that might take an hour or more to produce one or two useable photos, it’s hard to fathom how we got a newspaper out on time. That process has now been whittled down to seconds in loading digital images from cameras – or phones. In fact, this phone might be the best camera I’ve ever owned.

My first full-time journalism jobs were also with “afternoon” newspapers, usually produced first thing in the morning and published around noon. In those days news consumers bought both morning and afternoon newspapers – and larger cities had both morning and afternoon editions – in Greensboro, for example, the morning Greensboro Daily News merged in the late 1980s with the afternoon Greensboro Record to form what is now the Greensboro News & Record. Afternoon newspapers were the breaking news print carriers of that day – when 24-hour cable news stations didn’t exist and there were only three TV networks that only produced news programs a couple of times a day. Today afternoon newspapers no longer exist. Cable news and online publication made that kind of printing obsolete first.

Me at work

I worked so hard in the morning at afternoon papers that I had to take a nap in the afternoon. Me at the Burlington Times-News after the morning deadline around 1985 or ’86.

But it was also a great training ground for how news is produced today. I arrived at work in those days at around 6 a.m. and by 10 a.m. I may have written three or four stories and a handful of news or sports briefs. By means of comparison, reporters at morning newspapers started later and might work on one or two stories over an eight-hour period. Afternoon newspaper writers and editors produced stories almost as soon as we could get enough facts to cobble something together. Just like it is with online publication today, almost every story is considered breaking news and the deadline is usually, NOW.

And this is where Kenn really wanted me to go today in this presentation. So far I’ve offered a few of the technical advancements that impacted news production for print over the past few decades and only brushed against how it was impacted by TV and now digital publication. I moved from hand-written stories to electric typewriters to clunky computers that were mainly word processing and desktop publishing systems. Today newspapers use versatile desktops capable of supporting multiple systems to manage content of all kinds for print and web production, video and audio editing and photo processing and storage. Reporters today use laptops, tablets and, yes, smartphones to write and file stories, graphics and photos for immediate publication online and also for print.

me makeup page

Yep, don’t see this kind of pasteup anymore.

Immediate. That’s the operative word.

And in return, news stories, photos and videos are consumed by readers, you, on smartphones.

How news is produced today in print only vaguely resembles how we did the job in 1982 when I started. Newspapers once employed more than a 100 people who performed a variety of functions from hand-composing pages to operating the press. These jobs were eliminated by computer technology or corporate cutbacks. The newspaper in Burlington, the Times-News, shut its press down earlier this year. The news pages are sent digitally about two hours away to another newspaper building, where the Times-News is produced on a press then trucked back to Burlington for home delivery.

As a result, their deadline is far earlier than it used to be. Our deadline to send pages to the press last year was 12:15 a.m. Today it’s around 10 p.m. It’s a corporate decision based on declining print readership and I suspect an interest in moving the shift to digital only publication ahead more quickly. The newspaper now augments its meager print coverage with more speedy and additional reporting online. This is true of most newspapers today. The print production has been shifted to off-site, third party locations where multiple newspapers are produced. GateHouse Media, owner of the Times-News and a dozen or  more newspapers in North Carolina and hundreds nationwide, produces pages for around 300 newspapers at a cavernous facility in Austin, Texas. All they do is build print pages around the clock from one time zone to another from North Carolina to Oregon.

The number of print customers is dwindling and that was going to happen as the digital changeover moves forward. Consumers who want news – and that number is hardly established as large – want to receive it by computer or smartphones. And they want to find it by means other than going to newspaper websites, a development that I’m sure troubles newspaper companies and should. Based on the online analytics almost no readers go to a news site and simply browse. Analytics clearly indicate the vast majority go to news websites “sideways” by following links that capture their attention on social media.

This evolution in reading habits is profound. People at one time had the entire print newspaper at their disposal and ventured from one story to the next. Now they are only exposed to a limited range of news and commentary at one time.

WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE JOURNALISM?

A lot of what we’re talking about so far relates to changes in habits and customs driven by technology. Yes, news travels faster today than ever before. Speed has always been the goal of reporting. Newspapers printed ‘EXTRAS” during the course of history to quickly report big events – the 9/11 attacks provided the last of the newspaper Extras – many newspapers published special editions about it midday. TV networks can break in at any time. And online news travels every second of every day. There is more information available now on multiple platforms than ever before. And yet our nation has never been more poorly informed.

This brings us to the the long discussed fractured news market – sites and networks dedicated to political points of view. Consumers have been able to shop for news that fits their world view for the past two decades. Social media has only fed this over the past 10 years. In turn, that spawned sites dedicated to distorted news reports – fake news as the current president likes to say. These are more the province of left and right wing operatives than legitimate news agencies. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal don’t produce fake news. The left-leaning Times and right-leaning Journal report the same news but certainly ask different questions or pose different scenarios for consideration or comment. That’s healthy. Different reporters and editors should be examining issues from a variety of perspectives.

And that’s where journalism is failing most around the nation today. For example. Twenty years ago newspapers in North Carolina sent a fleet of reporters to Raleigh to cover the General Assembly and state government. The newspapers in Raleigh and Charlotte each had two, three or more reporters covering state government. Greensboro, Asheville, Fayetteville, Wilmington, Durham staffed the legislature. The Associated Press dedicated two staffers. Other newspapers shared one or two reporters in a bureau situation. All of those reporters were directed by a variety of editors to ask a wide range of questions from multiple perspectives – liberal, conservative, moderate or just contrarian..

Not anymore. Budget cuts have gutted staffs. Raleigh, Durham and Raleigh share two reporters in Raleigh. Fayetteville has one. Annnd, that’s about it for traditional newspapers. Online sources and TV stations are still there but there is an overall paucity of reporters on the ground being pests to state political leaders.

This situation is obviously bad for quality journalism. Variety is diminished, diversity is diminished. Competition for stories is diminished. What remains is a digest of crime and questionable clickbait.

THE FUTURE

me my first newspaperThe biggest threats to journalism today? One has to be the consumption of newspapers and TV stations by large corporations that are swallowing up properties daily then slashing staffs.

And second is politics. People in politics have blamed the messenger for decades. This relentless criticism, which really began in the 1960s in earnest, has finally eroded public trust in journalism at all levels. Social media put this on a much faster track.

People in journalism have responded by becoming more combative which is always our default position. Today it doesn’t serve us or anyone very well. It used to be that media outlets were at war with each other for getting stories first in a highly competitive atmosphere. Now they’re at war with politicians or other leadership entities. Consumers are forced to take sides. Many are choosing the loudest and angriest one.

The media have not helped themselves by occasionally veering into partisan journalism, which feeds the criticism. The speed that news items are produced online has also created a glut of mistakes that would have been eliminated or lessened in the old editing process used by print for decades. Web sites with few journalism ethics only make this worse.

he credibility problem can’t be ignored and journalists can work to improve the perception by being cognizant of how important it is to be accurate. And by thoroughly investigating stories  instead of haphazardly taking a few stray facts and turning it into a report based on assumptions and suppositions.

In short, journalists can do their jobs better.

The good news, of course, is that journalism will survive and live digitally in ever changing formats as reader habits keep evolving. Nothing stays the same. I would still say, though, that journalists have a serious responsibility to do their jobs better than ever before in order to emerge from the cesspool of fakers out there.

There was a time when I believed – about 10 years ago – that small newspapers would be the ones to survive the ongoing apocalypse while the larger newspapers would collapse. I now believe that a handful of mega-sized newspapers will last the longest – the Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post – while community newspapers will fail due to declining circulation and ad revenue which in turn takes reporters from the field. And I used to believe the market for local news would drive longevity. Now I’m not so sure.

I hope I’m wrong. Because while what goes in Washington seems like the most important thing, community newspapers report the news that impacts the daily lives of people in counties, cities and towns across the nation the most.

 

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