Wednesday, March 2, 2016
Get Me Rewrite
They still had a functioning linotype machine in the composing room when I started work at the newspaper in 1972. It was gradually being overtaken by early versions of computerized typesetting (CompuGraphic was the brand name), and eventually the linotype machine was painted over and put by the front door as a sort of freestanding sculpture that would have scared the entrails out of any competent liability attorney.
We didn’t have computers in the newsroom. What we had were typewriters, and some pretty ancient ones at that. Most were Underwoods, with a couple of Royals thrown in. We used them to type our stories on cheap paper that still had chunks of wood floating in it.
When the stories were complete, we didn’t hit a “send” button, we took the paper out of the typewriter, arranged the pages in order, and pushed the corners of them over a sharp metal spike on the managing editor’s desk. A couple of people perforated their thumbs trying to do that.
Composing a Story on the Fly
There were reporters at the county seat in Santa Cruz, and there were other times when reporters were out in the field and had to get a story in under deadline. Today, they’d write them on a laptop and email them in. Back then, the stories had to be dictated.
What that meant was that the reporter would call in to the office, sometimes from a pay phone, and dictate a story to another reporter, who was cradling a phone receiver on one shoulder and typing the story. I’ve always felt that the ability to dictate a story cleanly was one of the great journalistic skills of the time. Not many people could do it well back then, and I suspect hardly anyone could do it now if forced to.
It’s hard enough to keep a story straight when you have it in front of you and can check it. When you can’t see the story and have to remember exactly what you said — well, let’s just say that takes an awful lot of concentration. An almost inhuman amount, really.
One of the Best There Was
I got to thinking about dictation recently when I saw one of our former reporters, Lee Quarnstrom, a couple of months back. He was in Santa Cruz, plugging When I Was a Dynamiter, his memoir, which had a large focus on the time he spent with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in the 1960s.
That’s not the sort of background you’d expect to produce a mind so clear and focused that its owner could almost seamlessly dictate a 750-word story, on a tight deadline, complete with paragraphing and punctuation. Lee did it all the time. Other reporters needed a lot of help from the news staffer typing the story, but with Lee, you could just type what he was saying and make only the slightest of changes later.
Years later, when he was working for the San Jose Mercury, Lee described how a computer guru came to the Santa Cruz news office and explained the benefits of the new computer system, especially how it allowed you to move paragraphs and rewrite things easily. Lee said he didn’t need all that because he just sat down and wrote the story from beginning to end.
“Oh,” sniffed the computer guru condescendingly. “You must have learned to write on a typewriter.”
Damn straight, and he and the rest of us who did were better writers for the experience. It’s one clear case of how an improvement in technology isn’t entirely an improvement.