Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Back in the old days...

So, I became a reporter for a daily newspaper in North Carolina in the mid-1980s, before there were cell phones, digital cameras, high-speed modems or the Internet. Lacking such technology wouldn't have been so bad if I had been in the Winston-Salem Journal's main office—reporters there had computer monitors on their desks hooked into a mainframe computer. They could send stories with a push of a button.

But I was in a bureau office in the northwest corner of the state, 90 minutes from the main office. I was given a portable Radio Shack computer to type my stories on. It wasn't a laptop exactly since it only held three medium-sized stories at a time and its screen held only a few rows of type, yet the field reporters were wowed by its portability; it was the best thing we could use at the time.

I could slowly send a story from my bureau office via a modem, but out in the field, if I needed to get a story in before I could get back to the office, I would have to pull up to a pay phone, dial the paper's toll-free number, then attach a cup to the phone receiver to transmit the story from the laptop. The story would make long chirping noises as it went over the wire, like a fax machine on valium.

I was lucky. I saw reporters for other newspapers still calling in their stories, slowly reading them out for the intern on the other end to transcribe.

If none of the paper's photographers was available, I took pictures on my cheap, automatic 35mm camera, popping out the film when I was done. If there was no rush, I mailed it back to the Winston-Salem office. But if the story was going to run the next day, I'd drive over to the bus station in Boone (actually, it was just a local motel) and put my film on the bus; someone in Winston would pick it up.

I would check in with the main office at least once a day. But without a cell phone, I wasn't immediately available to anyone. While I was in Asheville one August day to write a feature on a New Age-y organization there, a plane packed full of cocaine landed near Boone, and became one of the largest drug busts in that part of the state. My editor frantically tried to reach me, but I was out of earshot, not knowing why everyone was so upset when I called in late that afternoon. I think they went with a wire story that day, supplemented by one of our reporters in a nearby bureau. It should have been my story. Still, my story on the New Age-y people got me my only above-the-fold front page, in that Sunday's paper.

Things are faster, easier, more accessible now, yet I'm not sure they're better or that stories are better written. My old bureau office, which covered two counties (with others, occasionally, as needed), has closed, folded into another bureau to become the Northwest Bureau office. I think that reporter must cover at least four counties now. Spread thin, is how I'd describe it. I'm not sure how you'd get to know all the people in local government or be in so many places at once. Maybe the reporter makes his rounds electronically, reading local blogs for gossip, chatting up people on Facebook, emailing interview questions. It's the only way I can imagine that he or she can be in 10 places at once—unlike when I used to walk around Boone, even in the deep snow, to visit the sheriff, the mayor's office, the Registrar, hoping to catch wind of something, to hear something I wasn't supposed to hear.

(The picture at the top of this post is one of the pictures I took with my cheap camera, which ran in the paper; it was for my favorite story I ever got to write for the WSJ.)

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