Friday, July 24, 2015

Journalists my age learned to write on typewriters

Journalism memory lane: Part 1 

When I was in journalism school at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, we didn’t have personal computers. We used typewriters.
That was 1982-84 in what was then called the College of Communications. (The university changed the name in 2008 to the College of Media.) The school offered degrees in print journalism, broadcast journalism and advertising. My bachelor’s degree is in print journalism.
There were computers on campus, but they were big IBM mainframes in which you had to feed paper punch cards. Students had to sign up for time to use them and they were mostly for engineering and business students. I never used them.
The university also had a ground-breaking networked computer system called Plato.
But let’s get back to my low-tech journalism writing courses.
We typed our articles for class on 8 ½-by-11 sheets of paper on typewriters and used copy-editing markup symbols to make corrections.
To write term papers for my classes, I often used the Atex computer system at the college newspaper, the Daily Illini. I’d print the assignments out on a dot-matrix printer that was fed perforated paper. My assignments would come out in one long strip and I’d have to tear off each sheet at the perforations before handing them in.
Our graphics class had a pagination machine for printing out camera-ready copy. You’d type in your text, along with codes for font styles, sizes and column widths. The machine would print out headlines and body copy suitable for physical cut-and-paste layout.
Columns of text and headlines had to be cut by hand with a small blade on a plastic board for positioning on a layout sheet. Text, photos and graphics would be run through a roller that would apply hot wax to the back. Then you’d paste it on a blank newspaper grid to assemble the page. When finished these page designs would be photographed and etched onto printing plates.
This was before personal computers and desktop publishing software. Now, all layout and design is done on the computer screen.
The paste-up method of newspaper design was used for about a decade after I graduated.
I learned photojournalism at the University of Illinois the old fashioned way as well, with 35 mm film cameras and chemical baths for developing negatives and prints. There were dark rooms with special gear for projecting light through negatives onto photo-sensitive paper. It was a delicate and time-consuming way to make photos.
Newspapers were still a healthy business in the mid-1980s, although they had been on a slow, steady decline.
The biggest change in the industry while I was in college was the launch of USA Today in September 1982. It revolutionized how newspapers looked. Newspapers across the country copied USA Today’s style, including its generous use of color photos and graphics, informative charts, and short stories that didn’t jump to inside pages.
Newspaper journalists at the time derided USA Today as McPaper. They said it dumbed down journalism by reducing long-form articles to infographics and bite-sized stories.
The transition to PCs would be the next big change. But that wouldn’t come for another decade for most newspapers.

Part 2: Before there were PCs at newspapers, there was Atex.

Photos: IBM Selectric typewriter (photo by Flicker user Tomislav Medak); front page of first issue of USA Today on Sept. 15, 1982. 

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