Wednesday, June 22, 2005

What's Wrong with Journalism

When you ask, what's the difference between journalism in Ernie Pyle's day and journalism today, the answers that pop up range from global media to video technology to Watergate. Here's one I think matters as much, if not more, than all these.

It starts with this picture,
taken probably circa 1972. This is the back shop of a daily newspaper in a small city in southeastern Pennsylvania. You can see the linotype machines on the right, and the cases and type trays on the left. The technology had been basically the same for 50 years, some of it for 100 years.

By the time I started working for this newspaper, in 1985, it had moved to a new building, and the technology had changed. The hot lead was gone (but not the scars it left on the men who used it). The workers in the back shop now took strips of column-justified type out of a computer tray and ran them through waxing machines to make them sticky on back and, using X-acto knives, cut them into the right size and arranged them on big sheets of thick paper in the form of the newspaper pages they would become once they were photographed and turned into press plates.

But it was the same men, and some women, too. I worked with the guys in this photograph, and with the photographer who took it. They were working people. Few if any had been to college, though by my time some of the younger ones had been to trade schools. They had ideals, and at the same time they were ruthlessly unromantic -- a slightly different set of values, rooted in a different experience, from the upper middle class college brats like me who now inhabit the reporting and editing desks.

A good newspaper editor spent time in the back shop every day. The people who set up the copy for the presses read it as they did so -- in this picture they literally typed it in by hand. In my day, they read it on the proofs. And they would tell you what they thought about it. Same with the guys who ran the printing press, in their blue overall suits and ink-blacked hands. If an editor wanted to know what the world outside his office walls thought about the news, and his presentation of it, this was a great place to start.

In the 19th century this was journalism. Even an editor often took his turn with stick and rule, setting type. With the rise of daily newspapers, a class of reporters developed, but they often were drawn from the boys who worked the presses or built the pages. I have a scrap-book of one of the first reporters to work for this newspaper, from the 1890s. He began as a typesetter. In his book he pasted clips of articles he wrote and sheriffs' passes that got him into hangings in the county jail. But before all that, in the first few pages, is his typesetters' union card and a column of type on which he proudly hand-wrote the date he had set it and the fact that he had done so without written copy and without a single mistake.

In my early experience, such folks still kept a close and corrective eye on American newspapers, from within the building where they were made. We reporters used to hang out after work at the same bar as the back shop and the pressroom crew -- the Square Bar. Around 1 a.m. one of the press guys would show up with a dozen issues of the first run of the next day's paper under his arm and plunk them down on the bar. If you'd written something stupid, something that betrayed a lack of knowledge of local issues, or an unwonted arrogance, you'd hear about it -- good-naturedly, but pointedly.

Now, where I work, there still is a back shop. It consists of about 5 people who oversee the computer systems. Unless we meet them by chance at the coffee machine, we newsroom denizens rarely speak to them. Most of them have computer backgrounds; they don't have ink or wax or lead splattered on their clothes. The process of making a newspaper is now computer to computer to printing press.

The bosses don't miss the back shop workers; back shops had a strong tendency to unionize. In many newspapers, the printing press itself has moved into a separate building from the editorial offices, out in the suburbs, where land is cheaper and distribution easier. They no longer drink at the same watering holes. An editor can run anything he damn well pleases without having to think about running the back shop gauntlet on his way to the men's room.

And somewhere, along the way, the American media comes unmoored from the American people. Perhaps it would have happened anyhow.