Monday, August 25, 2008

The News in 1967 -- How Technology Changed It

If the Burlington County Times in 1967 was a typical newspaper, the way news releases got into the paper was simple. Someone opened the mail and gave the news release to someone -- the news editor or an assistant city editor. A really significant news release would be given to a reporter to follow up on and produce a story, but most were simply announcements of promotions, meetings, garden club officers and the like.

So the editor, using a pencil, whacked out a lot of the garbage, made the lede focus on what was being announced rather than who was announcing it, and gave it some sort of standard headline -- a 1/24/2 or the like. The edited news release, either still on its original paper or cut-and-pasted (using real scissors and paste) onto another sheet of paper, then went down the chute to the composing room, where a printer set it into type on a Linotype, a proofreader checked it and ordered fixes, and the typeset slug either went onto a page as dummied or sat in a bank to be used as filler.

And thus local newspapers in the 1960s could easily find themselves filled with lots of local news releases. They were easy to process and they filled spaces around the ads. They got local names into the paper with very little effort. And journalists wondered why they were taking up all this precious space with "K. of P. Installs Grand Master." Whether readers felt that way we probably do not know, because newspapers at that point did not often ask readers what they thought. Why should they? Everyone bought the paper.

Three things happened in the 1970s. One is that journalists' view of their newspapers changed. How can we publish that press release? It could be a lie. We need to check it out, and if we don't have time, we shouldn't run it. Why do we list the garden club officers but not the officers of the AME church women's organization? But for change to happen there has to be a push and a pull. The pull was to make the newspaper more journalistic.

The push was that there no longer was a composing room. Someone in the newsroom would now have to actually input these news releases into some type of computer system. At my first paper, where we used OCR scanners, they actually hired people to do this -- retype news releases and newsletters from "country correspondents" that previously were set in type by a printer so that they could be fed through a scanner that only read Courier 12 off an IBM Selectric typewriter. (Yes, I was one of those people.) But if most newspapers had a position, they were going to hire a reporter, not a typist.

The second element was that the design of pages became more precise with computers. Previously, you really had no idea how long a story would be in type; it was an estimate. Now the computer showed you the exact length. So there was no excuse to have a one-paragraph filler headlined "SIKHS WEAR TURBANS" at the bottom of your page. Doing layout, you were no longer dashing off pages and letting a printer figure it out; you were responsible for the whole thing. This was seen as good because it gave the newsroom control. And it had been determined that readers liked modular layout and no longer wanted the cacophony of thrown-together pages. (Not debating that they did. But does anyone remember the debates about "op width" that led to 14-pica columns for Action Line on A1? Why did that matter so much then and matter so little now? Did we solve that problem, or just get bored with it and declare it solved? And why does none of this stuff about readability seem to matter on the Web?)

Your job was a lot easier if you surrounded the ads with easily cuttable wire copy requiring one headline than if you had to put four local stories on the page -- particularly if it was no one else's job to input the local "stories" in the first place. The news editor had now become in part the pagination-desk editor and was no longer whacking news releases, and a person of his dignity certainly was not retyping them. Even if they were available, they had to be rounded up and attached to the page. That took time.

And the third thing was sectionalization. Until the 1970s many daily newspapers had one or two sections -- with the break page often being dominated by a department store's ad. (The start of the second section in The Times-Picayune was generally an ad for D.H. Holmes Co. In the San Francisco Chronicle, it was the City of Paris Dry Goods Co. running next to Herb Caen.) If there was a third section, it was something like the Chronicle Sporting Green or The Des Moines Register's Peach section, or a once-a-week item like Food. A typical paper, though, had two sections, with something like news, women's and editorials in the first, and news, sports, classified and comics in the second. Sunday, of course, was different.

This meant that everything in "news" was jumbled together, as pages had to be made up and moved on a set schedule to allow the pressroom to deal with the cumbersome process of making plates. So you would tend to close out pages with small newsholes early, even if they were A5 and A14, with what you had at the time. For many papers, this meant there was no distinction between local news and wire news. It all went everywhere. It was what you had.

For a lot of good reasons, many actually involving early determinations of reader preference and others involving that pivotal 1970s question of "What do we do with the Women's Page after 1960s feminism but while people still want their weddings listed," newspapers embraced sectionalization. The New York Times used this to break out of being the Old Gray Lady, and Gannett was a leader in developing the four-section plan. At most newspapers this was A section, Metro, Sports and Features. The advertising model was: Most advertisers wanted to be at the front of the paper, so the department-store ads and the other big guns went in the A section. Metro often was backed with classified, not just because not as many advertisers wished to be in the B section, but because classified was often led with obits (paid or not) and obits were clearly B section news. Sports (or Sports/Business) had enough agate to make up a C or D section, along with the tire store ads and the like, and Features would have ads from women's clothing stores and theaters, plus the comics. You could balance the sizes of the sections, roughly, which made it better for the pressroom.

What that meant in many papers, however, was that the A section was now devoted (past the front page) exclusively to wire news. Some papers tried to make the front section local and the second section national-foreign, but some readers resisted this even though it hadn't mattered when it was jumbled together. In that era when newspapers were the only real providers of national-foreign news, it just seemed wrong to consciously give run-of-the-mill local stories precedence over national politics and foreign intrigue. (We still hear this from some traditional readers today.) If you just stuck a page of local news in the middle of the A section, the reader who assumed all local news was now in the B section would miss it. And the B section usually did not have as much space as the A, because it did not have as many display ads. So the marginal local news was squeezed out. Also, you could kill off the A section pages early with wire copy from Asia or Europe that wasn't going to change, and make your flow goals.

Part of the reason that news releases and community news suddenly look attractive again on local-local Web sites is that the person in the community in effect becomes the printer -- posting their own news without the involvement of an editorial person.

Some papers did hand out stacks of news releases to reporters, who then complained how they were unable to do real stories while retyping news releases. Many papers tried to shepherd them into briefs columns or "hometown news" pages, where they often embarrassingly became the best-read items in the paper because they were short. But in those heady days money to hire reporters at some papers was flowing like wine, and those reporters turned out news stories that tended to get longer and whose trimming now involved negotiation, because we were past the bad old days of the evil city editor who whacked 30-inch stories to three grafs because there was only three grafs of news in them. We're all Halberstams on this bus.

This served the cause of journalism. Whether it turned readers away from newspapers, which were now more full of wire stories from Almaty and contained fewer easily digestible news nuggets about people you might know, is an open question. TV news improved and expanded as well. But overall circulation began its inexorable decline and people began telling us that they did not have time to read the paper. Our response was that they should adjust their priorities and make time, and that in fact we would give them even more to read.

Readers say in focus groups that they don't expect daily papers to provide chicken-dinner news, and then they buy weekly papers that provide chicken-dinner news and increasingly turn away from the dailies. But how the daily of 1967 got to the daily of 2008 is not just a story of increasing professionalism. Technological change always involves changes you don't even know are happening, and often involves changes that reader-customers don't like but you don't notice, because you are getting to do more of what you want.

1 comment:

Doug Fisher said...

Great post!

It's hard to explain to people how in two decades not only did the technology of the newsroom change, but so did the culture along with it.