Journalism the Way it Used to Be

If you want to understand what has happened to the news, the best way to do that is to compare how news used to be produced against how it is produced today.

In 2014, renovation workers removed a time capsule from the cornerstone of the Charles Bulfinch-designed Massachusetts State House, which was completed in 1798, and still remains one of the most beautiful state houses in the nation. When conservationists at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts opened the capsule, they found some old coins, a medallion depicting George Washington…and five newspapers. Originally buried in the foundation of the State House by Paul Revere and Sam Adams, the time capsule proves how important the founders thought the printed word was back then.

Now, not so much. We can no longer afford to take “news” without more than just a grain of salt. Here’s why:

Unlike electronic media, which we mistakenly believed to be immortal, the printed word really is immutable. Once something is printed, it can never be changed, only destroyed. Until it is destroyed, an almost impossible task, everything ever published is part of the permanent record of the human experience. Today, however,living in the ephemeral world of electronic storage, the truth is subject to revision without notice. In fact, many websites have disclaimers stating that the owners of the website reserve the right to edit, remove, or add new material at any time, without notice.

In order to understand what has happened to journalism in the 21st century, one must understand how news used to be “produced” back in the 20th century, before the Internet changed everything, and a good place to do that would be the newsroom of The New York Post, circa 1968, where I served my apprenticeship as a “newsperson.”

The Structure of a Newsroom

The newsroom at The New York Post was a big open space, long before big open offices became fashionable in Silicon Valley, with 24 individual desks for the reporters, arranged in rows so the reporters could face the editors. The desks were metal Steel Case, single pedestal work stations, each one furnished with a Remington Noiseless or an Underwood manual typewriter on a drop-down table insert designed to put the keyboard at a comfortable height for the user. The telephones had dials, not keypads. No erasers were allowed in the City Room, for reasons that will become obvious.

Off to one side of the editorial space, there was a large horseshoe-shaped work table, with room for eight or nine people to sit around the rim of the horseshoe, while one person sat in the slot in the middle of the horseshoe. This was where the copy editors worked. The copy editors, regardless of sex, were known as “Rim Men.” The chief copy editor, was known as the “Slot Man,” again regardless of sex.  Copy editors read every single item that is published in every edition of every newspaper in America and part of their job was to ride herd on  the grammar, syntax, and punctuation of the reporters and rewrite “men” as well as to safeguard the factual content of the articles.

Behind them, there was a glass enclosed room with six teletype machines constantly clattering away, receiving news stories from the wire services. There was always at least one copy boy (and they were all boys back then) minding the store, tearing off the stories as they came off the wires, and running them into the newsroom. This was not considered a plum job, but it was a foot in the door, and the copy boys who drew that job were always the first people in New York to find out about everything going on in the world. (I was in the wire room when the news about Jim Morrison’s death came over the wires. I was therefore one of the first people in New York to learn of his death, since the wire came from the Associated Press Paris Bureau.)

On the other side of the room, parallel with the copy desk, was the editorial suite, an island of double pedestal, Steel Case desks that were pushed together so that the people sitting at those desks could make eye contact and speak in normal tones to one another. (at the Post, you were known as either a single pedestal guy or a double pedestal guy, with the double pedestal guys having greater status.) Seated at these desks, in order of importance, were the managing editor, the news editor, the city editor, the assignment editor, and several assistant editors, along with an average of four rewrite “men.” (We will come back to them later.) The photo editor had his own desk, which was stashed in a corner near the door to the composing room, convenient for him, since he was constantly going back and forth between the composing room, the art department and the city room.

Between the editors’ suite and the copy desk, on the near wall behind the editors, there was a heavily insulated door that led into the composing room, where the type was set, pages were laid into their forms and the plates from which the paper was actually printed were made. It was a hot, dirty, noisy, dangerous place…but it was the cauldron in which daily newspapers have been brewed since Public Occurrences, Both FORREIGN and DOMESTICK, America’s first newspaper, published its first edition in Boston on September 25, 1690. (The world’s first daily newspaper, Post-och Inrikes Tidninga, put out its first edition in Sweden in 1645. The first American daily, The Pennsylvania Evening Post, opened for business as a daily newspaper in 1783, but only printed daily editions for just 17 months. The New York Post, which describes itself as the “oldest continuously published newspaper in America,” was founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1801 as a “mouthpiece” for the Federalist Party.)

How News Became News (Once Upon a Time)

A Linotype Machine circa 1966

There was never a time when a daily newspaper newsroom was unoccupied, although it was sometimes more occupied than others. At the Post, there were three shifts. The day shift (from 8 AM to 4 PM), was responsible for producing the final edition, which hits the streets between 3 and 4 PM. The night shift (from 4 PM to Midnight), had no edition to produce, unless a breaking story requires the rare phenomenon of an Extra Edition, but was responsible for gathering and writing news stories that broke during their shift. The overnight shift (from midnight to 8 AM), was responsible for producing the morning edition of the afternoon paper, called the City Edition.

The managing editor– and the assistant managing editors – represent the management, not to manage the operations of the newsroom, although they pretty much did that too. Their most important job, however, was to review everything that went into the paper during their shifts for libel, slander, and violations of editorial  policies.

The news editors, of which there were also several, decided what went into each edition of the paper. The first thing they did when they arrived for their shifts, was to read the most recent editions of each of the city’s six newspapers, including the previous edition of the Post. They kept track of previous Post stories that required follow-up, while they tore up the other papers, picking out articles they wanted to cover in their next edition. (In some shops assignment editors did this.) This was a big job, and it had to be done quickly, so everyone contributed by pointing out articles that deserved attention.

Sifting Information for Stories

Next, and for the rest of the evening, the news editor reviewed all of the incoming material to identify stories the paper should cover for the next edition. This required reading the press releases that had come in during the past 24 hours, reviewing the wire service reports, rummaging through the leads submitted by reporters from the tips they had received, and checking now and then with the copy boys in charge of monitoring the emergency radio channels to see if anything interesting was going on out there in the city that never slept.

a slug of type from a Linotype machine

Once the news editor had decided what the paper was going to cover that night, subject to any late breaking stories that might arise to push others aside, he passed the budget – a list of stories to be written – over to the assignment editor. It was called the news budget because that was exactly what it was. Each edition of the paper had a set number of pages, which equated with a certain number of lines of copy. After the lines of copy devoted to the advertising that had been sold for that edition were deducted, the remaining lines was equal to the amount of space that had to be filled in each edition.

The assignment editor apportioned the work among the reporters who were available on that shift. Some of those decisions were easy, because there were “beat” reporters who covered certain stories regularly, becoming experts on their subjects.

Sometimes, it was not so easy, such as when the beat reporters had to be rousted out of their beds (or someone else’s bed, or the nearest bar) to cover a story. In the days before beepers and cell phones, beat reporters were required to phone in their locations so that the assignment editors could track them down. Other leads, the ones that did not fall into any beat reporter’s category, went to general assignment reporters, utility infielders who could handle just about anything thrown at them.

The city editor was in charge of laying out each edition of the newspaper, deciding what went where. The managing editor’s role in the layout process included making sure that articles related to a given company or industry did not bump up against advertisements from those entities by appearing on the same page, or the next one.

The chief copy editor was in charge of managing the workflow on the copy desk, passing stories out to the copy editors, who checked the articles for spelling, grammar and punctuation, as well as the actual content. The slot man then reviewed the rim man’s work before sending the edited articles back to the original reporter for a rewrite, if needed, or on to the composing room. Very methodical.

Reporters from the night shift would come and go through the evening to write up the stories they have covered during their shifts. Most of them were gone by midnight; the ones that remained later were grumpy, at best, trying to finish their stories and go home to their fragmented lives. The night shift was the worst of the three with respect to family life, but that was the shift that most of the star reporters worked, including the columnists, sports writers, theater and arts critics.

A page being “made up” at the compositor’s stone.

There was a special group of reporters, called rewrite men (again, regardless of sex), who did just that, taking stories from other newspapers, press releases, and wire service reports and reworking them, adding facts and figures, scrounging quotes from previously published articles (because they cannot call the sources after midnight) to produce the filler the paper needed to keep the advertisements from bumping into each other.

Rewrite men performed one other function. On late breaking stories, when there was not enough time for the reporters to get back from a story locations to write their own articles, reporters would dictate their articles via pay phones to the rewrite people, who then wrote the final versions of the stories while a second writer took notes to make sure the primary rewrite man did not miss anything of importance. Photos were shot on site with old-fashioned Nikons (which were then high-tech items), and the film was rushed to the newspaper office by motorcycle messengers, where the pictures were developed, printed, and retouched to make them more legible.

How the Newsroom Operated (Back Then)

Now that the players have taken the field, this was how the game was played: reporters wrote their stories – one double spaced paragraph per page to leave lots of room for the inevitable edits. The stories were typed on “books” consisting of six sheets of newsprint cut down to letter size, interspersed with five sheets of carbon paper. (There were no copiers in the City Room. There were no electric typewriters or fax machines either in 1968.) Under deadline pressure, reporters sent their stories to the copy desk one paragraph at a time. This is why erasers were not allowed in a city room; you can’t erase anything from a book consisting of six sheets of paper and five sheets of carbon paper. Cross outs and insertions were used instead.

The writers kept the sixth copy for reference. The fifth copy went to the assignment editor, to show that the work was done. The fourth copy went to the news editor, who reviewed it for content. The third copy went to the city editor, who decided where it would go in the paper. The second copy went to the managing editor who reviewed it for libel, slander and violations of company policies. The first and best copy went to one of the copy editors, who reviewed it for spelling, grammar, punctuation and word usage before handing it to chief copy editor, who reviewed it again for spelling, grammar and punctuation, and reviewed the copy editor’s corrections as well.

The edited copies then went BACK to the reporters who wrote them (if they were still there) to retype the article, making the necessary corrections. There were two good reasons for this practice. It provided very tangible feedback to the writers about the problems the editors were having with their writing, and it ensured that the Linotype operators had a clean copy to work with. Clean copy went directly from the copy desk to the composing room. If the original writer wasn’t there, the rewrite job would fall to one of the assistant editors, because that was  beneath a rewrite man’s dignity.

The reason for that backwards order was that the sixth copies were barely readable because no one could hit the keys on the Remingtons and Underwood hard enough to make a sixth copy truly legible.

The corrected articles would then go BACK to the copy desk AGAIN so the corrections could be checked before the articles were set in type. There was a reason for this repetition, too. In 1968, The New York Post was still using hot lead Linotype machines to compose the paper. A Linotype machine composed text one line at a time by dropping a sequence of letter molds into a line of type (hence the name of the device) that was then filled with molten lead to form what was called a slug.

Stories were composed by fitting the slugs of cast type into a special frame, called a galley. A small proof press was used to “strike off” copies of the galleys, which were called “proofs” because they were used to prove that the article was ready for publication.

If a single character or punctuation mark was missing or incorrect on any given line of type, that line would have to be reset, the galley would have to be broken up and the corrected line of type inserted to replace the one with the blemish in it…..and, if that change forced any characters onto the next line of type, the entire paragraph from that point on would have to be recast, and the whole proof-reading process would have to be done again, with a fresh set of proofs going back into the city room.

The Linotype Operator’s Special Role

Those Linotype operators were the last line of defense against errors in a newspaper operation. Many of them were deaf, but they all communicated with each other in sign language because it was impossible to carry on a conversation against the roaring clatter of the linotype machines. Those Linotype operators who could hear wore hearing protection to make sure they could still hear when their careers were over, making verbal communication quite impossible.

Because they collectively read every word published by the Post, Linotype operators were very knowledgeable in their areas of expertise, in which they had become experts because the operators were often assigned to subject categories so that there was at least one operator who was familiar with foreign affairs, politics, sports, and the other departments of a daily newspaper. They were also expert grammarians, possessed with perfect spelling and punctuation skills. As a result, the Linotype operators often corrected obvious errors on the fly, while flagging questionable items for the copy editors to review. What was interesting about this process was that the Linotype operators, having no axes to grind (except that they were all unionists and most of them were also socialists if not outright communists), and no ego involvement, often caught errors that the original authors of the articles…and the entire editorial staff…managed to miss.

From beginning to end, this process required that every article that went into the paper was read at least 20 times by 10 different people before it was published, a number that includes the news editor, the assignment editor, the city editor, the managing editor, the chief copy editor, the actual copy editor, the photo editor, the original author, the rewrite man, and the Linotype operator…and each of these players read each article at least twice during the course of the editorial process.

This seemingly cumbersome, time-consuming process worked like a clock…because we worked by the clock, the ever-present countdown clock that zeroed out at 8 A.M. sharp, when the presses had to start rolling to get the paper out on schedule.

But That Was Then: This Is Now

In 1968, if you arrived at your desk at midnight, you had until around 7:30 that morning to produce the story you were working on. Today, in 2016, for online publications, that number could be as little as four, three, two…or just one MINUTE because you are in constant competition with radio, television, and the ever-present Internet.

Today, many “mainstream” news organizations use correspondents (we used to call them “stringers”) who submit stories electronically that, in most cases, have not been reviewed by anyone else prior to submission. If those articles are accepted for publication, the chances are that only one other person has actually read the article through before the decision was made to publish the piece in question. Because we rely today upon the sometimes questionable wisdom of spell checkers and grammar monitors, there are no copy editors supervising the language being used. This is why questionable and, indeed, obnoxious novelties such as “meme” and “fail” are creeping into the language.

Back in the day, the copy editors of the nation’s daily newspapers were the gatekeepers for the language of the nation. Today, their ranks have been so thinned by attrition as newspapers disappear and the remaining news organizations convert to electronic data storage and retrieval, that the editorial process itself is often considered irrelevant by the younger generations of writers who did not grow up under its tutelage…and some people just do not think that is good enough.

I’m one of them. No matter how good you are, you’re going to make mistakes. Everyone does. A newspaper publishing operation until the mid-1970s, when the Linotype machines started disappearing, was a fault tolerant system, which means that mistakes in one story did not stop the whole edition from moving forward, the way a mistake on an automobile assembly line can shut down the whole line until the fault is corrected.

The fact that a newspaper was a fault tolerant system doesn’t mean that a newspaper could tolerate faults. In fact, it meant the exact opposite. Everyone in the system had to protect the system from error and anyone, from the copy boy to the editor-in-chief, could call anyone else out if they saw a mistake that no one else had noticed.

The reason for the difference between then and now can be summed up with one word: paper. Newspapers printed on newsprint were immortal and immutable. Notwithstanding the information corrupting editorial process depicted by George Orwell in his dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which the story’s anti-hero, Winston Smith, is employed by Big Brother to rewrite previously published news stories to conform to changing government policies, printed materials are immutable because of their wide distribution. Libraries all over the world, including The United Stats Library of Congress, once kept bound books for old editions of The New York Times and other major publications, making it quite impossible for anyone to change the information contained in those publications.

With the advent of microfilm and microfiche systems, those old, crumbling newspaper pages have now been converted to photographic images that are even more indelible than printed words on a page…with one important exception: microfilm and microfiche records can be tampered with without leaving any traces behind. Now, in the computer age, with virtually all the data in the possession of the human race now being stored and retrieved electronically, that check and balance no longer exists. (Experts, of course, can distinguish changed or corrupted data while the average individual user cannot.)

Blood on the Floor in the City Room of The New York Times.

Even paper and ink operations like The New York Times have fallen prey to the need for speed because their online edition has to compete with Google News (which, of course, often turns around and promotes stories published by the Times) and online operations like the Huffington Post and approximately 200 other “major” news and information websites. The friction between the traditional paper and ink editorial leadership and the “Young Turks” who produced the separate but overlapping online edition of the paper came to a head when an internal investigation by Times staffers revealed deep divisions among the reporters and editors, with the line of demarcation being their attitudes on the question of timeliness versus accuracy.

The Times, having suffered a succession of embarrassments arising from fraudulent news stories filed by certain reporters, charged newly appointed executive editor Jill Abramson (the first woman ever to serve in that position, replacing the very popular Bill Keller) with the task of cleaning up the paper’s act. Accordingly, Abramson came down hard on the side of accuracy versus speed. In this case, accuracy meant putting online articles through much the same exhaustive editorial process as the one that The New York Post – and virtually every other newspaper in America – employed in 1968.

That bothered the mostly younger reporters and editors working on the online edition, because it meant that they were being “scooped” or beaten to the punch on important stories by other Internet outlets that weren’t burdened by the Times‘ traditional editorial process. They rebelled. Abramson was ousted after only 32 months on the job amid charges that she did not play well with others. An internal report based on a study conducted by Times’ employees of their own operations greased the skids under Abramson by documenting the dissatisfaction with her “old-fashioned” editing rules.

The Need for Caution vs. The Need for Speed

The biggest change brought about by the Internet has been the need for speed. Before the advent of the Internet, there was a fairly rigid news schedule. There were two or sometimes three editions that were due out at specific times during the day. Everything that went on in the newsroom and the production facilities was geared to produce a deliverable product according to that schedule.

There was only a need for speed at crunch time, the hour before the paper was supposed to go to press, which means the moment when the printing plates could not be changed without delaying the production of the next edition. On the overnight shift at the Post, crunch time started at 7 A.M. and ended at 8 A.M. sharp. So, while there was sometimes a need for speed, there was always a need for accuracy, because nothing vexes a newspaper editor more than being forced to issue a correction or, even worse, a retraction. (The difference is that you issue a correction when you were a little bit wrong; you issue a retraction when you are very, very wrong.)

An old newsman’s saying puts it this way: “When the paper’s on time, no one notices. When the paper is wrong, it is remembered forever.”

Things started to change when television news began to develop the technology that enabled the stations to cover news at the scene of the action in the late 60s and early 1970s, a development that was spurred on by three very significant cultural phenomena: the war in Vietnam, the anti-war movement and the overlapping civil rights movement. Together, these three phenomena created a need for speed and immediacy that didn’t previously exist in the newspaper end of the news business…and from then on, print journalism has been playing catch up, and failing to catch up.

Cellular telephones leveled the playing field to a certain extent. Unlike beepers, which merely enabled you to establish communication with reporters in the field, cellular telephones allowed reporters to call in their stories directly from the field. With the advent of smart phones and their excellent photographic capabilities it became possible for reporters to capture images at the scene of the action, and even dictate their stories directly into print via text messages…but it was too little and too late to redress the balance of power between print and broadcast journalism.

The advent of the Internet put the icing on the cake. Now, contributors can file stories 24 hours a day, and see them published in matter of minutes. Admittedly, a very high percentage of the stories being published online are being copied (and, in some cases plagiarized) from other stories published online, to the point where it is not uncommon to find a dozen stories on the same subject with the same exact lead paragraph, but that just exacerbates an already exacerbated problem.

Why should this matter to you as a news consumer? It matters because you are consuming an adulterated product, news to which opinions have been added, coloring and distorting the facts. It matters because you are using the information you obtain from these questionable sources to make decisions ranging from which products to buy to which presidential candidate to vote for. It matters, ultimately, because the media is how we learn about reality on a day to day basis, and if that information is corrupted, so are we.

160 total views, 3 views today