When Journalists Gossiped, Laughed, and Came Up With Great Story Ideas

By Jack Limpert

The biggest environmental change in journalism over the past 25 years? The noise level. In the pre-digital days, you walked into a newsroom and people said hello, gossiped, laughed. Now hardly anyone looks up from their screen.

I started out working for UPI and its bureaus might have brought in EPA inspectors to write tickets for too much noise. In a decent-sized bureau there might be 20 Teletype machines chattering away, with bells ringing for bulletins and flashes. Lots of talking and phone calls.

Twenty-five years ago at The Washingtonian, telephones always were ringing. But in my last years as a full-time editor, I’d sometimes go an entire day without the phone ringing—a couple of hundred emails but no calls.

Now there’s very little walking around. Why walk over to talk with someone when you can dash off a digital message? It’s a very efficient way of communicating. You doesn’t have to interrupt someone’s work, you can copy others, it puts things on the record. Who needs face-to-face talk?

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 more to people.

Now when I’m with older journalists, we often talk about the noise and fun of the old newsrooms. There was a lot of walking around and talking that led to good story ideas. There also was a lot of cigarette smoke but that’s another story.

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