Friday 2 March 2007

Tools of the Trade

Grown men having tantrums in the newsroom of a major daily newspaper is not a pretty sight.

But in the 35-year history of the Toronto Sun, we have witnessed such tantrums by George Gross, Bob MacDonald, Bob Pennington, Gary Dunford, McKenzie Porter and others.

These were men who could not cope with technological changes. It is a generational thing and if you were born after 1980, you will probably not appreciate the strong emotional attachment these news vets had to the tools of their trade.

For several decades, their trusty Underwood typewriters, requiring double-sheeted paper separated by carbon paper, were an international newspaper icon. Underwoods got the job done and, along with teletype machines, contributed to the orchestra of newsroom sounds.

When the Telegram newsroom was silenced on Oct. 30, 1971, reporters among the 62 Day Oners carried their Underwoods up the road to the new Toronto Sun offices. The clacking continued and all was well with the newsroom vets.

Two years later, the first of many technological changes in the history of the Sun saw the arrival of electric IBM Selectric typewriters and a new computerized typesetting and scanner system. The electric typewriters were clunky and huge. (See Dave Blizzard e-mail)

Sports Editor George Gross immediately cursed at his new Selectric and threw it in a waste basket. He was not alone in his adversity to change, but the newsroom carried on and the clunky Selectrics made the move to the new Sun building in May of 1975.

Ken Robertson, city editor at the time, says introducing the Selectrics created another sideline problem.

"We had to use the Delta system of signals, i.e. Delta sign and ST at the beginning of a story signifying Start, Delta sign P to indent paras etc.," says Ken. "Everything had to be directed by the Delta system.

"As city editor, I suddenly noticed that most of the writing had become stiff and boring, not like the usual Sun style," says Ken. "Figured it out, finally. All of us were so conscious of having to do the Delta stuff that the quality of the writing took a back seat, so to speak.

"My solution was to spread the changeover gradually. This week, just concentrate on putting a Delta S at the top of copy. Next week, add the Delta P and so on. A few weeks later, we were back to our familiar style once again and using the full Delta system."

The loudest revolt was heard in the late 1970s when the first of the CSI green monsters were purchased - the VDTs (video display terminal), aka primitive computer. Management arranged for all reporters to attend four-hour VDT training courses.

This blogger avoided that course by sitting at a VDT all night, poking at all of the buttons and keys to see what they would do and discovering numerous ways to lose a story. It was the beginning of a lasting love affair with computers.

But the arrival of the VDT was the last straw for several veterans, who had reluctantly made the transition from Underwoods to electric typewriters.

Bob MacDonald, Bob Pennington and McKenzie Porter all announced they were boycotting VDTs. They continued to use their electrics, but one by one, they eventually surrendered and began poking away at VDT keyboards.

If the VDTs could talk, we are sure they would claim physical abuse from frustrated reporters.

And one of the usual suspects was columnist Gary Dunford. A frustrated Mr. Page 6 gave his VDT a punch to the right side one day in the newsroom. The finicky green machine plunged off his desk and hit the floor. It took a bounce and sat there quietly until removed by those busy techy guys who were on call for VDT servicing.

Despite the revolt and the VDT abuse, computers were in the newsroom to stay. To make it easier for employees to adapt to computers, Sun management arranged for home computer purchases on a payroll deduction plan.

Computer systems and programs at the Sun have changed several times since the arrival of the VDT, the most recent being the exodus of Quark in favour of In Design.

Today's sanitized newsrooms are eons from the newsrooms of old, where cigar-chomping reporters did the poke and hunt on sturdy Underwoods, shouting for copy boys when their work was done. Newsrooms with noisy teletype machines, pneumatic tubes, news editing rims, cameras requiring flashbulbs and film, darkrooms, floors littered with unwanted copy and photographs etc.

To relive the newsroom environment thousands of veteran journalists have known and loved, rent The Front Page, All the President's Men, Deadline USA, The Paper or any of the other classic Hollywood newspaper movies on DVD and watch it on your TV or computer.

You can almost smell the cigar smoke.

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