Newsrooms Were a Lot Noisier and a Lot More Fun

By Jack Limpert

One of the generation gaps in journalism is between those of us who remember, and mostly loved, the sounds of typewriters, teletypes, and ringing telephones and those who started in the much quieter digital age.

From Ron Cohen, who was UPI’s managing editor before going on to work for Gannett:

“The clackety-clack of the teletypes, although doubtlessly the cause of premature hearing loss in many journalists, did provide an atmosphere of excitement in newsrooms. Their replacements, virtually silent, made newsrooms more like insurance offices.

“And the transition from wide-open, bullpen-like rooms to individual walled cubicles for reporters exacerbated that buttoned-down aura.  Newsrooms were a lot noisier, a lot more colorful—and, dare I say it?—more fun when I began my career with UPI in 1960 than when I ended it with Gannett.”
I started in journalism with UPI and then moved on to newspapers and the Washingtonian magazine. The UPI  bureaus, as Ron said, seemed full of noise and energy. We worked in a room full of teletype machines with bells ringing for urgents, bulletins, and a few flashes, phones always ringing, lots of loud talk. You can’t write with all that noise? As Ron said, maybe you should be in the insurance business.

In the old days, when you walked into the editorial side of a magazine or a newspaper 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.

Pre-digital, telephones always were ringing. In my last years as a 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? Emails are a very efficient way of communicating. You don’t interrupt someone’s work, you can copy others so everyone knows what’s going on, it puts things on the record. Who needs face-to-face conversation?

I learned 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 most the day. You should have walked around more and had more casual conversations and laughed a little.

That’s where many of the magazine’s best story ideas came from—relaxed conversations about what we were thinking and feeling and enjoying. It seemed to loosen up everyone’s creative side.

Back then there also was a lot of cigarette smoke but that’s another story.

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