The first day on the job, the publisher took me for a tour of the business, and I was immediately impressed by the powerful offset presses that were in the back of the building. When they ran, the whole building shook, and I swore it felt like the heartbeat of the newspaper. Near these presses were relics from a bygone era: old, wooden drawers filled with linotype characters. Before the offset presses, newspaper publishers would have to arrange letters that resembled metal Scrabble pieces on a tray, spelling out each word of each sentence, of each article, on each page. It was incredibly time -consuming, so you had to make sure you precisely formed the words in your stories because editing linotype was a hard, monotonous task. You didn’t so much as align letters on a tray as nurture them into the proper place.
Offset printing required publishers to type each story on a glossy paper. This paper was then run through a waxer, cut into columns with an exacto knife, and arranged on a proof page along with the pictures. Then a negative was shot of the page, and it was formed into a plate, which was then attached to the presses. This type of printing also made revision difficult – so again, the words had to be right before the negatives were shot.
Within two years, The Wasatch Wave made the leap to digital, desktop publishing. Wow! No longer did I need to spend so much time printing out copy, waxing it, and pasting it to the proof sheets. Digital cameras came along, and that turned the darkroom into a closet. Until that time, I actually found solace in the darkroom among the fixer, developer, and other assorted chemicals. I would no longer have to open the film canisters with a can opener, and spin the film onto a spool, and place it in a small tank. I performed this job completely in the dark because one small light streak would ruin the negatives. After the negatives dried, I would slide each negative through the projection unit and shine it on the beautiful Kodak print paper. Then I would develop the prints in a series of chemical trays. It was exciting to see a print slowly come to life in the developer, and I never grew tired of the experience.
The digital age made it easy to change the words in any story. You could add, delete, and shift paragraphs around with the greatest ease. It was, quite simply, a miracle. But now I wonder if something wasn’t lost in the digital leap. Maybe the words shouldn’t be so easy to change. I wonder what it would be like to write deliberately again, knowing how painful it would be to change words once your fingers committed them to a typewriter
Years ago I had a student say it was too time consuming for him to take a better digital picture for a yearbook page. If he only knew what it was like in the old days! I have also had students complain a little when I ask them to re-write a story, or fix the corrections. I wonder if they had to fix their writing on a linotype tray a few times, if that would force them to pay more attention to what they were crafting in the first place. Would it teach them to write more deliberately, with a little more reverence.
A lot has changed since those early days, even more so from the days of Ben Franklin – who was probably the coolest newspaper publisher in history. However, one constant still permeates the present. Good writing – the power of the written word can still stir our souls. The computer has not made us better writers – not by a long shot. It still comes down to one person facing a blank page, armed only with their thoughts, cajoling an ember of inspiration into a piece of writing. A writer with a computer has no advantage over another with a sharpened goose quill. Computers will never make us more creative; rather they are simply tools to help give it form.
I try to teach my students the most essential part of any story, even if it’s a podcast or a video news story, is the writing. The text should stand by itself. All the dazzling special effects in the world will not rescue a weak piece of writing. You cannot transform a lackluster piece of writing into something magical simply by adding sound effects, transitions, and other technological embellishments for the same reason you cannot turn chicken poop into chicken salad with a few spices. There are plenty of dismal Hollywood movies to prove that point.
Writing requires “blood, sweat, toil and tears.” Sorry Winston. But writing also allows us one of the best tools for expressing ourselves, and that makes it a pursuit worth learning how to do better. I imagine that was a lesson the early Sumerians understood right from the start. Now it’s time for my students to re-discover the essential lesson I learned when I stared into that pile of linotype letters so many years ago.