Up Front: October 2009
Here goes, another refrain from The Old Fart’s Lament:
It was different back then, 41 years ago when I started in this business. To get a story into print, first I had to report it, scribbling notes on a pad, then pound it out on a manual typewriter. Before I could fully savor the masterpiece of prose — nay, sheer poetry — I had produced, it was snatched from my hands by the city editor, who proceeded to rip it apart at the point of a No. 2 pencil, fixing myriad mistakes in style, grammar and syntax, not to mention logic and fact, laboring like Hercules, had the gods conceived a fate as frightening as missing a newspaper deadline to hover over the hero’s head. All this to ensure that The Daily Times-News — and in the process, the 19-year-old intern scowling over his shoulder — did not play the fool.
Then — the Burlington paper being too small to have a copy desk, where his scrutiny would have been seconded — he stuffed the edited copy into a pneumatic tube to be sucked upstairs, where a linotype operator keyboarded each letter again, his machine spitting them out in lines of lead type. Since every word that appeared in the paper flowed through their eyes and out their fingers, these were some of the best-read, most-literate people in the building. And nothing gave them more glee than to march downstairs to the newsroom and point out something the “professionals” had missed. The same went for those who built galleys of type — reading it backwards — into pages or who made the mats from which metal plates were cast to hang on the presses or who operated those thundering monsters that kissed paper with the ink, creating the printed page. In military terms, this would be described as defense in depth.
Putting out that paper was a labor- and capital-intensive operation in which dozens of craftsmen melded their skills and talents. That something the quality of this magazine could be produced — up to the point of printing — by a staff as small as ours would have astonished them. That technology has advanced to the degree that anybody with the means to afford a device that can be held in the palm of a hand can be a publisher might seem inconceivable.
But with the freedom — and power — the latter has given individuals, something important has been lost, and that is the sense of craft, the collective effort and commitment to getting it right. Now that each of us has a voice, too often what is heard is nothing but noise, either banal or noxious: me, me, me, me — the sense that if I say it, it must be so, and worth saying. I would never want to silence any of those voices, but to compare them to the craft of journalism would be to say masturbation is the same as making love.