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Tom Ross: What did reporters do before rubber cement?

Ah, technology: Most 'N-Geners' have never typed on a manual typewriter

The Eagles checked into the Hotel California. Alex Haley tapped into black pride with a book titled “Roots.” Jimmy Carter pardoned draft dodgers, and the Yankees defeated the Dodgers four games to two in the World Series. Manfred Mann and the Earth Band were “Blinded by the Light,” and the top tv shows of the day included “Happy Days” and “60 Minutes.”

It was 1977, and it was the year I first sat down to work in a newsroom. To my horror, on that first morning at the Chilton-Times Journal, I was guided to a desk upon which sat a manual typewriter. I had learned to type on an IBM Selectric a full seven years earlier, for heaven’s sake! How in the name of Red Smith was I to be expected to get my knuckles tangled up in the clunky keys of an old manual?

Had I not been so intimidated, I might have cried out: “For God’s sake, this is 1977, we live in an era of modern technology!”

Only, we didn’t.

Just ask the reporters I work with in the newsroom today. Many of them have never touched a typewriter — either manual or electric, though they learned to type in fourth grade. Just the thought of working at a typewriter causes a distant look to cloud their faces. I can almost hear them thinking, “Sure, Grandpa, when we got our first typewriter, it was a big improvement over the days when we used to scribble our stories in charcoal on the blade of a shovel!”

The truth is, they cannot recall a time when they didn’t transcribe their interviews on a computer screen. Don Tapscott would call our fresh young reporters members of the Net Generation, or N-Geners. They range in age from 6 to 26 (the N-Geners, not the reporters). They are 80 million strong, and they are empowered by the ability to shape their world proactively through e-mail and the Internet, Tapscott says. He is the author of a best-selling book titled “Growing Up Digital — the Rise of the Net Generation.” It’s a good read, though a little out of date — it was published in 1999.

Unlike baby boomers, whose world was shaped by passive consumption of television, N-Geners are turned on by the interactivity of the Internet.

Last week’s newsroom conversation was about the ways in which information technology has transformed our working lives. It began when I asked a couple of reporters if they had taken journalism courses dealing specifically with information and news gathering through the Internet.

“Of course,” was the reply. “I took two courses on that.”

The answer didn’t surprise me. The ability to sit at our desks, always online, and quickly ask Google to find information for us, has allowed us to track bankruptcies two states away. We get the latest ski-racing results from Europe almost as they happen. We tap into the amount of water flowing in the Yampa River and the amount of snow on Buffalo Pass on a daily basis. The pace of technological change is altering our working lives so rapidly, it’s hard to keep track of the changes.

Six years ago, we purchased film scanners so the negatives we brought back from a commercial film lab could be entered into our computers quickly. Four years ago, we bought an expensive film developer so we could process color film quickly on deadline. Today, we have no interest in film at all, and the processor sits forgotten in a darkroom that is no longer needed. We don’t think twice about sending a photographer to a distant high school playoff game because we know they’ll have no trouble e-mailing the digital image back to the newsroom in time to make Saturday morning’s paper.

Our new capabilities quickly are taken for granted. That’s the way the world is. How many years will it be before the camera will have a satellite phone built into it, allowing reporters from small-town newspapers to send images back to the newsroom from the scene of a forest fire, or a historic cattle drive, or a mountain-climbing expedition?

In addition to an old manual typewriter, there was something else sitting on my desk at the Chilton Times-Journal on that first morning in 1977. It was a dark amber colored glass jar with a black, screw-on lid. Protruding through a hole in the lid was the handle of a small paintbrush. The business end of the brush was sitting in the jar, which was filled with rubber cement. Its smell made me light-headed.

The editor had to explain its purpose to me.

“As you type your stories, always triple space between paragraphs. If you need to move paragraphs around in your story, cut them apart with scissors, then use rubber cement to paste them in where they belong.” I quickly got the hang of this new technology, but to this day I find myself wondering, “What did reporters do before someone invented rubber cement?”

— To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com


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