Reminiscing About Writing in the ’90s, and Before

My good friends at Verizon asked me to write a story about what journalism was like before technology came along and messed everything up. Here’s what I came up with: 

These days, it seem like I’m the only one who remembers what a telecopier is.

At the risk of sounding like that old man who claims to have walked a mile to school every day (I actually did that), I’m lucky to have worked as a journalist in the pre-Internet era. The days when journalism was accomplished with typewriters, telecopiers and notebooks are long gone, and I’ve been fortunate enough to adapt to new ways of doing things in this business over and over again.

Old Tools for Journalists

Old Tools for Journalists

Oh, a telecopier. Back in the 1980s I worked in the press box at the University of Tennessee. To get a document (like the game story I’d just completed on an IBM Selectric typewriter) to another city, you had to get on the landline phone with the recipient, put the document on a cylinder, and both parties had to put the phone handset into the telecopier.

Magically, the document, after six minutes, would come out of the machine. It was on this flimsy, foul-smelling paper. Then it could be set up for layout and eventually printed. It seems now like such a long process.

In the late ‘90s, I was a reporter at a business newspaper. I distinctly remember learning about the Internet and email, and suggesting to the publisher and my editors that it was imperative that we get our hands on these new things. We were far from the cutting edge, and my pleas went unanswered for a long time.

When media outlets started creating web sites a few years later, that same publisher laughed at the idea of putting actual news stories on the web site. There’s no way we’re giving our content away so just anybody can read it without paying. That was the general reaction to the Internet.

Rick Redding

Rick Redding

But, again, things changed. I went to work in 2001 for an Internet-only publisher.  This was media that wasn’t in print, or on TV, but it was real journalism. We had been first to capture a niche market, and business leaders in that industry flocked to the ‘Net to read the stories we produced that weren’t available anywhere else.

I loved the speed of the new way of doing things. I could write a piece and publish it with no time lapse, no waiting for a printer, no checking the proofs before it went to press. If I wrote something significant, I’d hear about it right away from readers.  In the newspaper business, I could go months without getting a single reader reaction to my three stories a week.

The company figured out how to sell advertising online, a real breakthrough, and my staff and responsibilities grew, and we forged into other niche industries. I hired journalists away from print magazines and newspapers.

In 2006, I started a blog in Louisville called The ‘Ville Voice. In those days, it was possible to beat the mainstream media to a story simply because those outlets were mired in an old media mindset. The daily newspaper couldn’t report anything that happened until the morning – even though it had an opportunity to publish online. The idea that the paper would scoop its own morning paper by publishing a story online seemed far-fetched.

TV stations didn’t pay much attention on online reporting then either. I was often able to beat them to reporting stories by a matter of hours because they didn’t go on the air until 6.

Many of the stories I wrote were about the mainstream media outlets and their struggles to adapt. This is still happening, as the local newspaper continues to try to do more with less, to make its online presence its focus, and expanding its reporters’ duties to include marketing to readers.

Those late 2000s in Louisville were a brief window of opportunity. It was the first time an independent operation, without a printing press or broadcasting license, could compete for news stories.  Bloggers like me were reporting things as they happened, and consumers were discovering they could monitor certain web sites during the day and know things before their peers. Certainly they could get news before the mainstream outlets reported it.

I’m still blogging about local events at LouisvilleKY.com, competing with other web sites and mainstream media for audience. It’s not easy, but it’s not that hard either.

I’m also exploring a similar phenomenon in media. I started a podcast, the Rusty Satellite Show, in 2013. The idea of producing an audio program available only online was new to me. I had never listened to one. But the statistics show that podcast listening is trending upward at an amazing clip.

I’ve started picking up new podcasts on my phone, and spend most of my driving time plugged in to topics that interest me. There’s a whole world of choices. I can’t stand listening to commercial radio any longer. If I want music, I’ve got apps for that and my own collection. Talk radio, with those incessant commercials — no thanks.

My own podcast audience is growing. Each show features interviews with two guests, who I call “the most interesting people in the ‘Ville.” I’m ramping up to show #100, and I’ve found a sponsor and created something of substance, I think, in my hometown.

So the tools of the trade have changed, but the way content is created, in many ways, hasn’t. A content creator still has to come up with an idea, witness something or talk to a source. The reporter has to take that information, add in some research, and produce a story, whether it takes the form of words, audio or video.

Of course, I remember how bloggers like me were once derided by “real” reporters. We broke the rules, didn’t play the game. I didn’t follow the AP Stylebook, or double-check facts, or get both sides of every story. Sometimes I got things wrong, but I could fix it with a few keystrokes.

Going totally against everything I’d learned in journalism school and at a business newspaper, I invoked my opinion in nearly everything I wrote. And guess what? — people wanted to read it.

There’s room for all of us now — mainstream newspapers and TV, niche media outlets, bloggers and podcasters on every topic.  Consumers find us online via computers, tablets and, increasingly, their phones.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the basic challenge of media — produce something of value that an audience wants to consume. Anybody can do that, right?

1 Comment on "Reminiscing About Writing in the ’90s, and Before"

  1. j. bruce miller | April 17, 2015 at 2:14 pm | Reply

    Rick: It’s been a heck of a ‘ride’ for you. It’s been equally crazy for me, in the legal community. When I started at the age of 29 as the County Attorney, we used ‘carbon paper’ for copies!!!, and the IBM Electric Selectric typewrite was a Godsend for the secretaries, because the electric power made 7-8 carbon copies a possibility!!!. Then there were the car phones, which were as big as a small suitcase and they had 6 PARTY LLINES so you could hear what others were saying (and vice versa). Every law firm had a library (now its all on the internet with Westlaw or Lexis-Nexis). — Sometimes I simply pause in wonderment on the changes that have occurred in my working lifetime. Enjoyed your reminiscing.

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