Just for antiquity’s sake

It looks like an antique. By some people’s definition, an antique needs to be more than 100 years old.

What I’m looking at is a vintage photo from the New York Times that shows the newsroom of a metropolitan daily newspaper, possibly the Times newsroom itself.

There are a number of manual Royal typewriters, reams of paper, wadded up sheets on the floor, wastebaskets every five feet apart, massive filing cabinets, a generous number of ashtrays, a radio-like object that’s probably a police-and-fire department scanner, and a battery of Teletype machines.

There are no people in this crowded newsroom — possibly everyone’s on a break, but more likely the photo was taken on a day the paper didn’t publish.

At all the newspapers I worked for, the copy paper we typed on was not the precisely cut 8-1/2-by-11 sheets but actual newsprint, left over from a roll of paper and cut in the back shop to resemble what gets fed into the typewriter.

My first venture into a huge newsroom was while I looked into a job possibility with the Chicago Tribune. The sports editor at the time, the early ‘60s, was Dave Condon, whose roots were right here in Las Vegas.

He was connected to the Condon family who ran a coal company only a few blocks from my childhood home on Railroad Avenue. At the time I already had a newspaper job on the reportorial staff of a weekly newspaper in the Chicago suburbs, but the instant I walked into the Tribune building, in that Toddling Town, I felt energized by the clacking of the typewriters, the even louder humming of the Teletype machines and the sounds the carriage returns on the typewriters.

As I took a tour of the Tribune, I noticed a reporter pausing each time he “returned the carriage.” That’s an old-timer’s term for pushing the cylinder of the typewriter to the right at the end of each line.

In those days, typewriters had a bell that rang to remind the typist when it was time to go to the next line. I asked the reporter on that Royal machine if the sound of the bell at the end of each line meant it was time for a coffee break.

He was not amused. Old joke. Utter failure. Bad timing.

The hum of the equipment and the roar of heavy presses two floors below us excited me. It was like the rush one gets when entering a crowded football stadium, or walking into a musical performance when the audience applauds.

All that is changed now. The clickity-clackity of the typewriters of old has given way to the virtual silence of computer keyboards.

Well, I didn’t get a job with the tribune and convinced myself that I hadn’t actually applied for one. I learned that most big-city bosses wouldn’t even look at an applicant who lacked a college degree. That was my own situation, and I was tempted to work toward a B.A. in Chicago after learning that starting pay there was $100 a week.

But back home in Naperville, Ill., I soon received a call from a Tribune editor who asked me if I’d be interested in working as a stringer for that newspaper. The pay was $35 a month, and all I needed to do was phone in news tips. That little job paid almost half my monthly rent.

I went back to the suburban newspaper, where the Lions Club pancake dinner often made front-page news, and meetings of the City Council and School Board practically required “Second Coming” headlines, and Mrs. Gandert’s recipe for kidney pie attracted legions of readers, possibly more than coverage of a mass murder.

In some ways, the newsroom of the Optic, last century, resembled the New York Times newsroom — except for size. Most of the metro dailies had several teletypes dedicated only to sports. There was a news wire, a foreign affairs wire, and one just to cover entertainment.

A second paper I worked for in Illinois had a Spanish language feed beamed at the many immigrants from Mexico who had moved north to work for the Fox River Project. And was it a coincidence that the only newsroom staffer with a Spanish surname would sometimes double as a translator of wire copy from Mexico and Spain?

By contrast, the Optic had only one news machine, which punched out a code that we fed into Linotype machines that turned the little dots into type.

Although the Optic still uses Associated Press services, data come via the Internet, and the process is silent. As late as the ‘60s, before I left the Optic for the Midwest, news came via telephone wires. And photos? We needed to pick them up at the Greyhound station downtown, located where the large Safeway parking lot now sits.

Technology has changed many things and has simplified life.

And it’s changed people’s jobs as well. Most reporters in years past simply typed their stories and left the design, placement and typography to someone else. Nowadays, many people who cover the actual news design their own pages.

Those of us who grew up around small-town papers developed and printed our own photographs. Later, turning over our film to a different crew of darkroom techs made me uneasy at first, but I soon discovered they knew their stuff.

There was a time when I was tempted to stock up on large amounts of photographic equipment, expecting that darkroom chemistry would last forever.

Had I acquired all that stuff, I would have needed a warehouse. Besides, we can all get the same results ­— even better — with our tiny laptop computers.

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