Before the Internet, How Did Journalists File Their Stories?

The Columbia Journalism Review has posted a good piece, by Amanda Darrach, titled “On Deadline: How did journalists file before Google Docs?” Max Frankel, Ed Kosner, Jim Seymore, Dan Okrent, and other journalists tell stories about life before the Internet. Some of their memories:

Filip Bondy, sports writer: “In the 1970s, I started with dictation at games. We would write on typewriters, little Olivettis, and read the stories over the phone. Some of the typists we were reading to were very good, and some were torturously bad.”

Ed Kosner, editor: “The Watergate thing was interesting because it was so totally different from today. The problem was the transcripts were in Washington, and we were in New York. So a Newsweek assistant in the Washington bureau would go to National Airport, like 10 o’clock, and find a stewardess from Eastern Airlines or National Airlines, and hand over the transcripts and maybe 20 bucks or something. And the stewardess, or as the term was used, ‘pigeon,’ as in carrier pigeon, would literally fly the stuff to New York. The assistant from New York would be waiting at the airport and deliver the transcripts to me.”

Lynne Sladky, photographer: “My first big job was at UPI in Miami. They sent me to Haiti to cover the overthrow of Duvalier. When you left Miami, you had to take an enlarger, chemicals, paper. You would set up a darkroom in your hotel bathroom. I can’t believe the airlines let us on with all the toxic liquid chemicals.”

Max Frankel of the New York Times recalls the Kennedy assassination: “Wherever there was a large number of correspondents and a shortage of telephones, there was a fierce competition for getting into a phone booth. There was a particular fight, as I recall, when Kennedy was assassinated. The UPI and AP correspondents were in the same car, and they were physically fighting for the car’s phone setup.” For more on that story, Pat Sloyan wrote a dramatic account of what happened in the pool car when the first shots were fired at President Kennedy.

In 1960 I started in journalism in the UPI Minneapolis bureau. We wrote most stories on a typewriter and then handed them to a Teletype operator, who keyed the stories onto the wire. But sometimes, when I opened the bureau at  5:30 in the morning, I had to file directly onto the wire by writing at a Teletype machine. Any mistakes went directly out to UPI clients in Minnesota and the Dakotas, and my first piece of advice from the UPI bureau manager: “Whatever you do, don’t f— up the livestock or egg report.”

In 1968 I was a Congressional Fellow in the office of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and, after President Johnson decided not to run for re-election, Humphrey became a presidential candidate. The press secretary rode the plane carrying the vice president and I rode the plane carrying the writing press. Another assistant press secretary rode the plane carrying the broadcast press—it was known as “the zoo plane” because of the behavior of the radio and TV people.

When the plane landed at a campaign stop, the first question from the writing press: “Where are the phones?”

There was some controversy among the writing press about the use of tape recorders—small pocket recorders had just been developed. The oldtimers, most of whom had taught themselves enough shorthand to take good pencil notes in a pocket-sized notebook, made relentless fun of the newbies with their tape recorders. Real journalists use a pencil, a notebook, and a typewriter—we don’t need no tape recorders.




  1. Pamela Keogh says

    I was friends with William A Henry, III when he was Drama Critic for TIME. I was with him once when he dictated a cover story on Shirley MacLaine into a telephone. (No notes, just off the top of his head.) It was impressive.

  2. Mitch Gerber says

    At the announcement of the Salk vaccine, at the University of Michigan on April 12, 1955, among the reporters was John Troan, of the Pittsburgh Press. Because he’d been covering Jonas Salk’s polio research at Pitt for some time, he kinda knew what was going to happen. Amid the crush of print reporters and TV cameramen, he had a colleague squat at a nearby telephone. As a result, Troan was able to grab the phone at the earliest possible moment and send the word: “The vaccine is safe, effective, and potent.”

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