Friday, July 24, 2015

Before there were PCs at newspapers, there was Atex

Journalism memory lane: Part 2 

After graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1984, I worked for eight years for the Small Newspaper Group at papers in Streator, Moline and Rock Island, Illinois.
Like many newspapers at the time, they used the Atex computer system of servers and thin-client computers.
We had green-screen terminals at our desks to write our articles, which were stored in another room on a central computer.

To create a story in the system, you’d fill out the fields at the top of the screen, including byline and “slug” or name for the article.
The Atex system generally performed pretty well, but occasionally your terminal would crash and you’d lose all of your work since you last saved it. Writers were encouraged to manually save their work by entering a “save” command. But this was back of mind on deadline sometimes. I can remember having to start from scratch after losing nearly complete stories that I hadn’t saved. Talk about stressful.
In the mid to late 1980s and early 1990s (before the Internet and the widespread adoption of PCs), research for news articles was a lot more time intensive. Courthouses, for instance, only had paper records and handwritten docket books. Searching for criminal files and lawsuits was a manual process.
Even newspapers’ own libraries were antiquated. Articles were clipped and filed by subject. Reporters had to call staff librarians to dig up old articles in the “morgue.”
Writers were encouraged to keep their own files, including clipped articles, to save time on deadline. Of course, maintaining these records was a great time suck too. I used to spend my weekends getting organized.

When filing stories from the road in the late 1980s, I used a company-owned Radio Shack TRS-80 portable computer. It was popular with journalists because it was study and reliable. Reporters affectionately referred to the machines as Trash-80s.
The TRS-80 featured a tiny monochromatic screen on which you could view a few lines of text at a time.
You could file a story electronically by attaching acoustic couplers to the ear and mouth pieces of a standard phone and dialing into your company’s computer system. There was no Internet to route files at the time.
Since cell phones weren’t around, reporters had to use pay phones or another landline to check back to the office, dictate stories or file electronically.

Part 3: Early notebook PCs and America Online: The start of modern journalism.

Photos: A Winston-Salem Journal reporter enters her story into an Atex Systems terminal in 1981 (top); the glowing green screen of an Atex terminal (photo by Flickr user Lowell B); Radio Shack TRS-80 model 100 portable computer (photo from Photoree); TRS-80 with acoustic couplers (photo from Fast Horse).

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