Bob Bestler

Typewriter or computer? A picture is worth a thousand words

Ed Skibba tests a Remington typewriter after repairing it  Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014 at Ace Business Machines in West Allis, Wis. Ace is among a handful of Milwaukee shops that repair typewriters and have seen the business increase the last few years.
Ed Skibba tests a Remington typewriter after repairing it Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014 at Ace Business Machines in West Allis, Wis. Ace is among a handful of Milwaukee shops that repair typewriters and have seen the business increase the last few years. TNS

After 11 years, we're in the process of cleaning out our attic, a task that often has us stumbling across long-forgotten memorabilia.

Most bring back good memories, but one looked only vaguely familiar. Why is this here?

It was a copy of a Newsweek magazine dated Aug. 6, 1979. On the cover was a caricature of a sabre-wielding Teddy Roosevelt on a horse with the words: "Where Have All the HEROES Gone?"

I paged through it until I came to the raison d'etre: My photo, at a newsroom computer screen, with the caption, "At the Milwaukee Journal, no more shouts of `copy.'"

It illustrated a story, "The Silent Newsroom," telling how America's newsrooms were surrendering their typewriters for computers.

Describing the modern newsroom, Newsweek wrote:

"It looks far more like an airline reservations office than Lou Grant's grungy habitat, but in fact it is a newsroom - and the keypunch operators are working reporters and editors. After barely changing for nearly a century the newspaper business is being transformed by the computer with a speed and scope that is as revolutionary as movable type.''

There is irony in the fact that my photo was used to illustrate such a story.

I had come into the newsroom's computer age kicking and screaming. I'm never big on change and this was certainly more change than I wanted.

I belonged to the typewriter era, as grungy as it might have been, and did not welcome the move to Newsweek's "Silent Newsroom."

I loved the musical cacophony of dozens of busy typewriters, which I always thought of as the heart and soul of a newsroom. Old typewriters - they were always old - went so well with the half-full coffee cup and the mess of half-smoked cigarette butts in the nearby ashtray. Ah, those were the days.

Here's a little more irony: I joined the Journal in 1975, just as the newspaper was about to go to computerization. I had had some experience with computers in Charlotte and was asked to join a panel discussion about the coming revolution. The president of the company, the publisher and other company VIPs would be present.

Other panelists included technical representatives who were four-square for computers in the newsroom.

I was not, and my arguments were weak. In the end, it was like high school basketball against the Golden State Warriors. The bottom line: What did I know about computers? And why did I agree to this?

So I said I preferred to see an entire story on sheets of typing paper pasted together, not just a few lines on a screen.

I said it was a pain to have to sign in and wait for the computer to catch up rather than just shove a sheet of paper in a typewriter and go to work.

I warned that computers were known to crash and that would risk missing deadlines. And what if someone spilled a cup of coffee on his or her computer?

No, we had never had any technical problems in Charlotte. But still . . .

Afterward, a colleague wondered if I was brave or stupid. He pointed out that I had bad-mouthed newsroom computers to the same people who had just invested millions of dollars in a new computer system.

Well, we're more than 40 years removed from those neophyte days and, yes, I have accepted computers. Fact is, I could not write this column from home without one. Viva la revolucion!

Contact Bob Bestler at bestler6@tds.net.

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