Friday, February 26, 2010

A modern Stone Age media?

This is college newspapering. OK . . . was college newspapering, circa the fall of 1981.

It was analog and hard copy. As were we all back then at The Daily Reveille, premier news source for Louisiana State University.

What we have here are some photos I shot when I was a reporter there. They called me "Scoop" back then. No . . . really.

Well, Howard here (at right) looks like he's about to call me something else entirely. It's probably because I liked to do to deadlines back then what the Army liked to do to Iraqis at Abu Ghraib.

But that's not important now.

WHAT'S IMPORTANT is that these scenes from almost 29 years ago are glimpses into an era long gone, both on the campuses of larger universities and in the newsrooms of America's barely surviving newspapers.

There's a Facebook group devoted to the "Slow Media Movement." This right here -- this glimpse of something three decades past -- was about as slow-media as you can get. The news got to us at the speed of 66 words per minute on the wire and, locally, however fast a reporter could get back to the office to write something up for the morning paper.

No Internet. A few really, really primitive VDTs -- video display terminals. Today, we'd call them . . . actually, we wouldn't call them at all. They're obsolete.

They were glorified word processors with dumb terminals hooked up to a backshop rack filled with primitive computer hardware, which in turn connected to a typesetter.

But let's zoom in on part of that picture above. Let's zip past Howard and take a look at what the lovely, talented and very, very Greek (in the Izod and pledge-pin sense of the word) Carol is checking out.

THAT, my peeps, is a teletype machine. It brought us the world, via The Associated Press, at the aforementioned 66 words per minute.

No Web, no Twitter, no mobile news alert on your smart phone. Back then, you just had smart reporters who kept plenty of change on hand for plugging the nearest pay phone.

And the smartest reporters knew where the nearest pay phone was at all times and -- if the competition was around -- already had pocketed the mouthpiece.

Think of it. All the news fit to print trickling at a not-so-blistering 66 wpm into a news organization so primitive as to be effectively deaf, dumb and blind by today's standards.

THIS IS HOW that looked back then:

HERE'S SOMETHING for us to consider. By all standards of technological progress, all forms of media are immeasurably more capable and "plugged in" than they were in 1981. In many cases, college newspapers today have technological capabilities big-city newspapers couldn't have dreamed of more than two years before Michael Jackson did his first "moonwalk."

And college radio stations -- not to mention local commercial stations -- now sport facilities that would have been the envy of the networks three decades ago.

But that's not important now, either.

WHAT'S IMPORTANT is whether you're orders of magnitude better informed today than people were in 1981. This doesn't mean having a head stuffed with useless trivia, celebrity gossip and "Mafia Wars" and "Farmville" strategies.

It means this: Do you better understand the forces shaping your civic life -- better grasp the newsworthy events swirling around us, and hear of them appreciably sooner -- than you would have in 1981?

Has the quantity and quality of the information you receive -- the stuff you really, really need to know -- increased at anything approximating the rate at which information technology has advanced since the days of Walter Cronkite's "That's the way it is" and a brand-new IBM gizmo called the "PC"?

If not, why not?

THE CAPABILITY is there. Virtual mountains of information are a mouse click away.

Are you taking full advantage, however? Can you fully? And can you still get the news you need to know about where you live?

How is this possible when profit-challenged newspapers -- and radio and TV stations -- are shedding newsgatherers and editors at an alarming rate? What has replaced the "old media"? Has anything replaced the "old media" where you are?

If so, is it as good as what you've lost?

Is this an information revolution, or is it just sound and fury signifying . . . nothing?

Me, I'm still waiting to hear those five bells -- BULLETIN! -- on the AP teletype. I'll let you know what the big news is.

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