"How Did I Do This Before Google?"  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   November 2002

"How Did I Do This Before Google?"   

The relationship between newspapers and computers got off to a shaky start, but it was destined to go the distance. What are the ramifications?

By William Prochnau
William Prochnau, a former national reporter for the Washington Post, is a contributing editor of Vanity Fair.     


The last time Rem Rieder asked me to do a story for AJR I was standing on the side of a grumbling volcano in Ecuador. But the eruption had blown far to the northwest in Los Angeles with the last belch of the Chandlers' Los Angeles Times as it fell to Chicago's Tribune Co.

This time I was hacking my way through a mangrove forest--well, hacking the way aging journalists do it--on the edge of the Coral Sea. Rieder wanted a tome on 25 years in the life of American newspapers. I was tempted to tell him that American newspapers had only one serious use in the mangroves. Then I saw the method in the editor's madness.

If he kept catching me off guard this way, I would not fall into the ego trap of pontificating with all my obvious wisdom on such stalwart issues as the evils of corporate journalism, the capitalistic rapaciousness of 30 percent profit margins, the anti-Americanism of the 24-hour news cycle, the subtle gyp of shrinking web sizes and growing weather maps, or the intellectual depravity of letting a focus group tell you what is news.

So let me tell you stories instead. That is what newspapers--the way they were 25 years ago, the way they are now--are all about.

"Twenty-five years ago?" Tom Fiedler, the editor of the Miami Herald, repeated my question. "We still had linoleum on the floors so we could stub out our cigarette butts. We had just given up the Royal uprights and had moved into the modern age of Selectrics."

Newspapers were indeed at the edge of their own mangrove forest, entering a technological revolution of proportions so immense that no one today can honestly say that he or she saw what was coming--cell phones, BlackBerries, Google, instant digital photos, correspondents packing Global Positioning Systems off to war so they won't be bombed by friendlies.

At the time I was in my own phase of what would become a very modern phenomenon--the vagabond reporter leaping from paper to paper. I moved to three different newspapers in five years. Methodically, as if to teach me a lesson about the value of loyalty, each one introduced its newsroom to a different and pioneering computer system. Suddenly, gruff old-timers who had lived in a world of hot type and ems were struggling with a new lingo of VDTs, CPUs and data-storage systems. Up to that time a data-storage system had been the top of a reporter's desk.

My first experience with changing technology came at a small daily at which I became the founding editor (with someone else's money) in the suburbs of Seattle. We bought into the new age with a company whose initials, AKI, are burned into my brain cells. Living with AKI was like living with the air-raid system during the London blitz. It went off about 20 times a day. We had a sports columnist, Art Thiel, who was built more like an NFL linebacker than a newspaperman--6'8" and shoulders that forced him to turn sideways coming though doors. AKI had caused him to rewrite so many lost columns that one day he rose to full height, let out a karate cry that turned every head in the newsroom and judo-chopped the offending machine. I blanched. "Jesus, Thiel, do you know how much that thing cost?!" But nothing changed. AKI got neither worse nor better.

A few years later, in 1980, I joined the Washington Post and briefly returned to the glory days. This great, big, powerful paper still lived in the Neolithic times of "flimsies." We wrote on typewriters, using little page packets--one sheet of cheap foolscap attached to a half-dozen carbon tissues that turned our hands black but made a copy of our pearly prose for everyone in the place who needed one.

The break was short-lived. On November 1 the Post national desk switched to a Raytheon computer system overnight, no fail-safe plan, no backup, all or nothing. Such confidence! I marveled that I had finally reached the bigs. What other newspaper would have the guts to make this move on the eve of its biggest, all-consuming story of the year--the November 4 presidential election? We sailed through with David Broder, Lou Cannon and the rest of the Yankees batting out endless columns with the same aplomb that they had shown on their little blue-cased Olivetti portables aboard the campaign planes.

Two years passed erratically. On more than one occasion, Don Graham marched through the newsroom, muttering, "I paid millions of dollars for this ?" There was something about the mesh between the computer age and the newspaper mentality that was, well, uncertain. The computer folks couldn't get into the idiosyncrasies of our minds, and we couldn't get inside the zero-one-zero-one mathematical purity of theirs. "The paradigm had not quite shifted yet," says Scott Armstrong, an investigative reporter, and he knew--Armstrong was about to become a computer-era legend at the Post. Try as they might, early computer systems planners couldn't figure out newspaper people. "Newspapers bankrupted more computer companies than the stock-market crash," says Bill Elsen, a Post editor.

As the off-year elections neared, the computer people grew uneasy. The system is overloaded, they warned Executive Editor Ben Bradlee; this is dangerous. Bradlee put out the word. Dutifully, all hands killed a couple of stories from storage. It was like lowering the dam's water level three inches just before monsoon season. Days before the election the computer team sent a memo to Bradlee identifying the ranking of the news departments consuming the most storage capacity: Metro first, National second, Armstrong third, Style fourth, Foreign and so forth.

Bradlee circled Armstrong's name and scratched him a note: "No. 3? Give me a break."

Armstrong penciled in a reply: "Don't worry, Ben. I'll be No. 2 by next week."

Scott Armstrong had an aura about him. Most good investigative reporters do. They walk around furtively, nonanswering questions with that if-you-only-knew-what-I-know look. It didn't hurt that Armstrong also had been an investigator for the Senate Watergate committee. Or that a New York publisher had just given him a small fortune for a book. Or that the newspaper had added to the aura by isolating him in a warren in the basement with the wonderfully Postian name: the John Philip Sousa room.

"Information is gold," Armstrong said recently. "We didn't throw away an interview, a transcript, a wire story--anything that went in the computer. You just don't throw information away." All the system planners in the world could never have foreseen a Scott Armstrong. He was a professional pack rat, that was his value, and he had been in the John Philip Sousa room since the last election.

On Election Day 1982 the Raytheon system sputtered a couple of times and then folded. Just stopped. Kablooey. Armstrong's phone rang. He raced upstairs to the glass cage that housed the systems team in the middle of the fourth-floor newsroom. Bradlee loomed over the computer people. "This is not funny, guys!" he stormed. "This isn't fucking funny. This is for real."

Then all eyes turned on Armstrong. "We couldn't get the paper out," he said later. "What were we going to do? Go back to typewriters? It was election night. I was carrying this slide rule, and I just said, 'I think that what this calls for...' and I plunged the slide rule into my stomach like a hari-kari sword. Ben cracked up."

The paper finally did come out without typewriters that night. Scott Armstrong began using his delete button occasionally down in the John Philip Sousa room--but not too often, information being gold--and the paradigm slowly shifted as the Post moved another wobbly step into the modern era of BlackBerries and digital photos and a time when reporters wonder, in awe: How did I do this before Google?

It's hard to imagine finding a newspaper person who would retreat to the pre-computer era of 25 years ago or yield the benefits of the technological revolution that came with the VDTs.

Fiedler surely wouldn't. He is a rare breed among American editors, a man in the top slot who hoofed his way there reporting instead of clambering upward over desks in the isolation chamber of a newsroom. But while he wouldn't go back, he does worry that the technology is distancing newspapers from the world they are meant to understand and explain.

"You do pay a price for this," Fiedler says. "The ability to wander off, to think, to talk to people, may be getting squeezed out by all the technology. You find an extra hour when you used to talk to people and you go to your laptop and look for e-mails and surf the Web. Sometimes we lose ourselves in that stuff, and we never have that conversation where the thread of an idea just emerges, something that you would have never thought of."

More than one good reporter I know feels boxed in, tied to the office, tethered to it like an astronaut on a space walk whenever he does get out--three hard-line contact numbers and a cell phone connecting them to twitchy editors. Good stories, new stories, trend and original stories aren't born in endless sterile meetings of editors who eat in the cafeteria. They come from that network of eyes and ears that newspapers have traditionally strung through the community, reporters talking to the unhappy teacher, the frustrated bureaucrat, the threatened cop. They come from the bottom up, not the top down.

Maybe the biggest paradox in the past 25 years of American newspapers is this: The average paper, which was pretty bad 25 years ago, is better than ever, but the good paper, with the exception of the top few, is not. Travel budgets are down, staffs cut, fewer reporters are walking beats or given the time to milk sources. Investigations are shallower and enterprise more formulaic. Except at the handful of very best newspapers, there are very few Scott Armstrongs buried for years in John Philip Sousa rooms.

Geneva Overholser thinks newspapers are so important to our society and the situation is so serious that "it threatens to disrupt our civic life."

Overholser is one of those former everythings--editor of the Des Moines Register, Nieman fellow, editorial writer at the New York Times, ombudsman at the Washington Post. Now a faculty member for the Washington bureau of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Overholser ponders those issues I promised--you really can't trust the media--that I wouldn't bring up.

She thinks we have created a modern journalistic world so driven by demographics and cost--target the readers, then give them what they think they want at the least possible expense--that it threatens our reason for being. "Newspapers are failing to give reporters time or even encouragement to do the things that we used to say made us 'great' or 'good,' " Overholser says. "We almost have a different definition of good now. It's not surprising that a handful of papers win all the Pulitzers. They are the only ones that are investing in journalism."

One of the results, Overholser says, is that she has never known more "glum, gloomy and morose" journalists, many of whom are thinking of getting out.

On the theory, I imagine, that if you are going to be unhappy you might as well get paid for it. This is not meant to be a funereal report. I have never been a believer in the publishers' lament that they are staving off the wolves at the door of a dying industry, once having written in these pages that if the industry ever succeeds in dying, the road to the graveyard will be lined with more Caddies than the day Elvis died.

But it is a business of Ebenezer Scrooges, and that hasn't changed in 25 years. Just as they did then, college-graduate newspaper reporters rank at the bottom of every salary list, behind engineers, nurses, teachers, the lot.

In the dual interest of proper sourcing and returning to the subject of technology, I should acknowledge that I went to Google five times in the course of writing this article, three times to check spellings (once I did a name check that way and it came out 321 to 297 between dueling versions, in itself a commentary) and twice to peruse endless data on salaries. Fiedler is right. You can get lost up there. But while chasing down an endless computerized road of gems and garbage on salaries, I did run across a tidbit worth passing along. It was a study by journalist and former journalism educator Betty Medsger that concluded that a journalism graduate, seeking a first newspaper job, could make more waiting tables.

How did I do this before Google?

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