In the spring of 1979, the entire staff of reporters and editors at The Ann Arbor News was temporarily shoehorned into the lunchroom, a space about a quarter the size of the newsroom, while the latter was retrofitted for the dawn of the computer age.
As the waggish John Barton, who I think was then covering the police beat, has recalled, noting how different the times were, “We weren’t so much elbow to elbow as ash tray to ash tray.” I felt like an immigrant crossing the ocean in steerage. When Jeff Frank, the news editor who was in charge of our training on these newfangled gizmos, asked if there were any questions, I inquired, “Is it true we’ll all have jobs when we get to America?”
Jeff taught us what a password was, how to log on, how to print out, how to create and edit and save and send a file … it seems primitive now, but it was gee-whiz then. Most of us picked it up in 15 or 20 minutes. The ones who couldn’t more or less never did.
When I became the arts and entertainment editor in September 1983, I was introduced to the sacred mysteries of the editor’s keyboard, which had two additional rows of keys for functions that editors needed and reporters didn’t, like writing headlines and formatting type.
They also provided access to the wire services The News subscribed to. I believe there were seven, including The New York Times, The Associated Press, United Press International, and the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post (which we called “latwop”). This was a revelation to me. I had done my share of editing in my first 12 years in the newspaper business, but that was in the era of hard copy, soft-lead pencils, and clattering linotype and teletype machines.
Now all I had to do was tap a few keys to retrieve any file that piqued my interest and do whatever I wanted with it. But another thought soon crushed my exuberance: “We’re doomed.”
Hardly anyone had a home computer then, but almost everyone knew that was the future. It was in the air like the smell of rain on a summer breeze. If the technology was available for us to do that, then it was only a matter of time before it was available to the readers, too, and in their own homes. And when that happened, what would they need us for?
I never thought about its effect on advertising, which was what really finished off the print newspaper, but the principle was the same. They wouldn’t need us to be the gatekeepers anymore. It took 30 years, but it finally happened.
Having spent 20 years of my life in its employ, I used to wonder whether The News would publish an obituary when I died and, if so, what they would deem worth distilling from my lifetime. Dump the Dope? Covering the Tigers and UM basketball? Running for office? (Twice, but God saw fit to spare me both times.)
My ancient forebodings notwithstanding, I never dreamed I would outlive them.
Jeff Mortimer lives in Ann Arbor and has been a freelance writer and editor for the past 15 years. For 20 of his 23 years as a print journalist, he worked at The Ann Arbor News, which published its last edition today.