why some journalists write everything in lower case

by jack limpert

in my years at the washingtonian i probably typed 20 notes a day, which works out to a several hundred thousand notes, and almost all were written in lower case with no capital letters. occasionally someone would ask why.

my first four years in journalism were with upi and that’s how wire service people wrote back in the 1960s—all lower case, no caps. the reason? everything went out of the bureau on teletype machines, and the machines printed out only in all caps.

a few people would ask: why not then write everything all caps? a good question, and the answer seemed to be that if the teletype machines didn’t recognize the difference between upper and lower case, write it the fastest way possible. i’m not sure anyone ever proved you could write faster staying in lower case, but that’s the way we did it.

the nature of most wire service work was that most of the time you were writing as fast as possible. we’d write stories on a typewriter, edit them ourselves or have someone else check them, and then the stories would be retyped at the teletype machine. you sat at the teletype and your key strokes punched holes in a paper tape which then was fed into the teletype machine and the story went out. in bigger bureaus, we had a few teletype operators who would take your story and do the keyboarding. in smaller bureaus, the writers had to keyboard their stories twice, once at the typewriter, then at the teletype.

could you save time by skipping the typewriter and  just sit down at the teletype and write your story there? sure, but it wasn’t easy to correct mistakes on the paper tape and it took a lot of confidence to send your keystrokes directly out to the world. you might do it with a bulletin (three bells) or a flash (five bells).

this was dictated by upi’s merriman smith from the front seat of a car at 1:34 pm on november 22, 1963. it went straight to the teletype and most veteran journalists remember exactly where we were when the bells sounded and we saw the words:

THREE SHOTS WERE FIRED AT PRESIDENT KENNEDY’S MOTORCADE IN DOWNTOWN DALLAS

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