My Register Experience

Old Tech More Complex Than New

Posted in AEJMC, Preparation Week by Michael Bugeja on October 31, 2009

In preparing for our stint at The Des Moines Register, I offered to help copy-edit at The Iowa State Daily, one of the most innovative newspapers of its type as well as SPJ’s 2008 winner of the best such student publication in the country.

As director of the Greenlee School, I also wanted to observe the transition some of our students make in going from the Daily to a metro newspaper for internships or employment.

I was given a 5-minute tutorial in InCopy by Kim Norvell, managing editor, whose terse instructions were reminiscent of my 5-minute introduction to a newsroom version of the IBM 5100 computer by UPI staffer Fred Albers in the Pierre, S.D., bureau in 1975.

The so-called portable computer weighed 55 pounds and its WordStar-like application required even more hieroglyphic code to type, save and file stories. WORDSTAR

The worst thing about the $20,000 computer was how it froze every few hours because of faulty fans or, perhaps, because of faulty bureaus. (The Pierre bureau was situated in a windowless upper-floor closet in the statehouse, a hothouse in the summer and an icebox in the winter.) The best thing about the computer was the ease with which we fixed it, using pencil erasers to clean contacts and chewing gum to stablize fans.

True story: On election eve, 1978, hauling my heavyweight portable computer to a room we rented with buffet for 24-hour, round-the-clock coverage–a new concept then–I dropped the unit on concrete taking it out of a pickup truck, and its back cover fell open and bent the fan. As I cursed, Albers took out wads of Bazooka bubble gum and began chewing. We set up the computer inside, left the cover off, bent the fan back into place and used gum-wads to cement it in a cooling position.

The dang thing not only worked, it hummed through what turned out to be 48-hours of continuous coverage as Leo K. Thorsness defeated Tom Daschle by 75 votes (only to be overturned on recount, with Daschle winning by 139 votes out of 129,000 cast). I was calling elections that night, and after 35 hours, dubbed this one a draw–the only news outlet to get the call right, thanks to that tank of a computer.

The Apple iPhone’s 3.5-inch wide screen display is about the size of the CRT screen of my era, and its 4.8 ounces is a far cry from the 880 ounces of my IBM model, or 0.54 percent; but I assure if you drop it on concrete and its back cover cracks, it won’t hum for two days’ running on election night.Telcon_Zorba_front

Eventually, UPI changed over to a Zorba Gemini like system, similar in functions to the IBM 5100. Here’s a screenshot of what we had to cope with by way of copy. 

But I digress.

Back in the Daily’s newsroom, I was surprised at the ease I adapted to InCopy with its Word-like dropdown boxes and simplicity of use. In fact, inserting notes for other editors was more convenient than Word or similar popular applications. The most difficult aspect was learning shortcut keys and the Daily’s coding system denoting the level of editing before layout.

The Register uses InCopy.

After 1 1/2 hours editing, I returned to my office. Associate Director Jane Peterson asked, “So how did it go?”

“The system took me about 20 minutes to learn,” I announced.

“Let’s schedule a course on it,” Peterson quipped. Like me, she’s skeptical of the hoopla of convergence in academic circles, with some schools of journalism creating courses on the latest newsroom application. See my take on that in this article from “Hot Topics.”

To us, convergence has always meant adding mass communication across platforms in shared elective courses. To some of our counterparts, though, it has meant adding courses across the curriculum to share mass communcation one app at a time.

In part, that is why Assistant Professor and Pulitzer Prize-winner Dennis Chamberlin and I are spending a week at the Register. Not only will learn whether we can handle the technology; we also plan to cover “The New Poverty” in Watergate-era fashion, heading to locales from shelters to parks unannounced and documenting what we find there.

Perhaps Chamberlin will grace this blog next week with a post about the camera he used to document the 1982 flood in Fort Wayne, taking photos like this magnificently lighted one.

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One Response

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  1. Daniela Dimitrova said, on November 2, 2009 at 2:54 am

    Good to put this in historical perspective!


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