We Didn’t Need Coffee Shops in the Old Days

By Jack Limpert

Bill Mead, another veteran of UPI when it was a great wire service, stopped by yesterday and we reminisced about how different today’s newsrooms are from the UPI bureaus we knew. We both had worked in the Detroit bureau and remembered it as a plain room in the garage of the Detroit News building—the AP, being a newspaper cooperative partly owned by the News, had a nicer bureau near the paper’s newsroom. But UPI staffers always figured we were twice as good as the AP and we didn’t need as many people or perks.

What we fondly remembered were the sounds of journalism: We had about 10 people in one fairly small room (what office planners now call an open plan workspace). There were maybe 10 Teletype printers chattering away, phones ringing (as Michigan’s main bureau we got a lot of calls from stringers around the state), reporters pounding away at big black Underwood typewriters, lots of loud talking with plenty of profanity.

Bill also  remembers lots of paper: “Instead of pushing SAVE on a computer keyboard you spiked the copy. The news desk had a big vertical spike, and busy reporters whammed copy on it all day long. Bob Ardren, who worked the night desk, used to bring his lunch in a brown bag and we occasionally spiked it, the best moment spiking one of his hard-boiled eggs. One frantic  reporter in the AP bureau spiked a piece of copy so carelessly and hard that the spike went right through his hand.”

The news made a lot of noise, too. Five bells from one of the Teletype machines meant a bulletin—somewhat important news. The purpose of the bells was to alert news editors at newspapers and broadcast stations that it was news worth looking at now. Ten bells meant a flash—very important news. On the afternoon of November 23, 1963, we first heard five bells (“Three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas”) followed by ten bells (“KENNEDY SERIOUSLY WOUNDED PERHAPS SERIOUSLY PERHAPS FATALLY BY ASSASSINS BULLET”). Most older journalists remember exactly what they were doing that afternoon.

Bill mostly has been writing books since leaving UPI and Money magazine—he was famous for quitting a high-paying job with Money to write a book about the lovable, losing St. Louis Browns. Most recently he’s written an e-book about the remarkable grandfather who helped raise him back in the 1940s and ’50s. It was described this way on Amazon: “You’ll read it in three hours and smile for a week.”

I told Bill how much I missed the noise of the pre-digital days. Once computers took over The Washingtonian in the late 1990s, the office seemed too much a place of dead silence.

In the old days, when you walked into a newsroom, people said hello, gossiped, laughed. Now hardly anyone looks up from their screen. Because some people find the silence oppressive, they’ll listen to music on their earphones, further hiding from the outside world.

In the old days, the telephones always were ringing. In my last years as a full-time magazine editor, I’d sometimes go an entire day without the phone ringing—a couple of hundred emails but no calls.

And now there’s not nearly enough walking around. Why walk over to talk with someone when you can dash off an email? After all, emails are a very efficient way of communicating. They don’t interrupt someone’s work, you can copy others so everyone knows what’s going on, it puts things on the record. So who needs face-to-face conversation?

I tried to learn to live with the silence but never adjusted to the lack of face-to-face contact. At the end of the day I’d often tell myself: You got a lot done but you were at your computer all day, you should have walked around more, you have to talk to people more. And by my not walking around enough, it didn’t make it easy for others to come in and get me away from the computer screen.

So Bill and I had lots of fun talking about the noise and fun of the old newsrooms. (There also was a lot of cigarette smoke but that’s another story.)

My successor at The Washingtonian, Garrett Graff, turned 32 this week and he’s been living with computers since grade school. He says he handles the silence problem by doing most of his writing in coffee shops.

Going to a coffee shop to write? I put coffee shops and creativity into Google and, sure enough, the New York Times just ran a good story about that.

P.S.  Mike Feinsilber was working in UPI’s bureau in Columbus, Ohio, about the same time Bill was in Detroit. He adds this wire service memory: The Columbus bureau occupied a space in the offices of the old Columbus Citizen-Journal; it was owned by the Scripps-Howard chain, which also owned UPI. To avoid the expense of installing UPI wire printers in two locations, one was installed in the UPI office. It used a double roll of paper, with carbon paper sandwiched in between the sheets. (They were manufactured that way.)  The Citizen-Journal got the top copy, the UPI got the carbon. That meant there was an awful lot of carbon paper dust in the air. One of the Teletype operators—the guys who punched the keys that sent our prose flying to newspapers all over Ohio—went to see his doctor about a persistent cough. The doctor ordered an X-ray. When the results came in, he told his patient, “Sorry, buddy, but you’re going to have to give up your job in the mines.”

Comments

  1. M. Charles Bakst says

    Terrific piece. reminds me of breaking into the news biz at the Providence Journal in the 1960s when we used manual typewriters, long copy paper, cut and paste, teletypewriter etc. You might be interested to know I was recently at the Churchill Underground War Rooms in London, where several old typewriters are part of the landscape. In an adjoining museum, they have a typewriter on display and urge visitors (presumably youngsters) to try it. Posted is a set of instructions, starting with: “Line one sheet up paper in the back of the roller and roll it with the knob on the side.”M. Charles Bakst, Providence RI

  2. Generally enjoyed the article, although it broke the Limpert rule of forcing the reader — me, anyway — to look up and down the article to see if I missed the definition of “spike” somewhere. I’m not a journalist, but perhaps journalists under 40, too, won’t know what a spike is. So, what is a spike? Another question, if possible, please: if a news article is withheld from publication for political or business reasons, the article is “spiked,” right? Any relation, Jack, to the spike you write about in this post?

    • charlie trentelman says

      Fun column. To answer Richard, a spike was, quite literally, a spike, a pointed metal needle about 6 inches long with its base buried in a wheel of lead about 4 inches across so it stood, rather dangerously, on the desk pointing up. To spike a story you stuck it on the spike with a downward motion, trying not to poke your hand.

      The Standard-Examiner in Ogden when from one extreme to the other — classic newsroom as described to now current, and semi-empty, cubicle farm. I wrote a blog about it:
      http://charlestrentelman.blogspot.com/2013/04/newspaper-failing-maybe-your-newsroom.html

  3. Betty (Pardieck) Graff says

    I was close to that teletype in 1963 at the Bubank Daily Review. adding to the noise in that newsroom was the fact that the linotypes were merely feet away through a thin wall. They made a metallic musical accompaniment. the smells were better too. cigarettes, hot lead, ink, paper, carbon, dust and the occasional whiff of cheap whiskey in someone’s bottom drawer…

  4. Mike Feinsilber says

    As a verb in journalism, to spike means to file a copy of story, as least temporarily, on a long. thin, sharp, pointed nail-like piece of metal, attached to a heavy base. Usually, one day’s worth of stories generated by a bureau was spiked until someone bound the stories together to be filed away. Sometimes the spike was behind the editor who did the spiking. If he became careless he would eventually reach back with the copy in his hand and impale his hand on the spike. Generally this was followed by a colorful display of his vocabulary.

    • Charlie, Betty & Mike, thank you for the education about the spike. Mike, I enjoy your periodic guest essays on this blog.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Jack Limpert writes about his days working in the Detroit UPI newsroom. Which got me thinking about my days in my last newsroom, which was almost as archaic as what he recalls. […]

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