ICYMI: Remembering the Noise and Fun of the Old Newsrooms

By Jack Limpert

The London Times this week is having the sound of typewriters piped into its newsroom in an attempt to boost the energy of its reporters. The noise starts out slow and then builds to a crescendo of typing. Here’s a post from a year ago about the life and energy of the pre-digital newsroom—and the importance of face-to-face conversation.
First posted on July 14, 2013

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. There were maybe 10 Teletype printers chattering away, phones ringing, reporters pounding away at big black Underwood typewriters, lots of loud talking with plenty of profanity.

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.

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.)


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