Commentary: When journalism involved typewriters and glue pots

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The Philadelphia Inquirer's newsroom in 1938, when typewriters and glue pots were tools of the trade.

It was fewer than 10 words in a book on the Spanish Civil War that brought back a torrent of memories and nostalgia.

The words were contained in a brief description of the New York Times reporter covering the war: "he took notes on a folded sheet of paper."

I wasn't alive for that war (1936-39), but at age 75 I am a veteran of the same era of newspaper reporting.

The journalism I was introduced to in 1966 used tools of the trade as obsolete today as those 1936 fighter aircraft in the Spanish conflict.

We took notes on folded sheets of plain white paper - folded a special way. It was tradition - no notebooks, no tape recorders, and neither desk-top computers nor cell phones existed.

Every reporter's desk contained four essentials: a typewriter (often older than the reporter), carbon paper (bet those born in the computer era never heard of it), a glue pot, and plain typing paper - the same paper folded into thirds served for note-taking.

The stories we banged out were known as copy because those setting the type had to copy the story exactly as written and edited. This wasn't easy because most copy was loaded with penciled corrections. We used copy-editing symbols, which to outsiders looked like meaningless squiggles and lines.

If the story was too marked up we might paste a cleaner version on top of messy paragraphs. Periodically, I dropped my paste pot on the floor, which took an hour to clean up. Changing a typewriter ribbon was another messy job.

Besides the archaic tools of the trade there were numerous other differences to newsrooms today. For instance, all of the reporters on the suburban daily that first hired me were male. So were all the editors and sports writers. But in one corner of the room sat three females working on the "ladies section." Everyone in the newsroom was white.

Newspapers made money in those days, but the pay was lousy. When an editor of a paper in New Jersey offered me a job, I told him I had an offer from a suburban Philadelphia daily. "What are they offering to pay you?" I replied, "$95 a week, going up to $100 a week in three months."

"You better take that," he said. He could only offer $75 a week.

There's been a major shift in journalistic ethics since 1966. Given the meager pay, it was common for reporters to have side jobs, mostly in public relations. One day I was perusing a press release touting a local business and realized it was written by the reporter sitting at the next desk.

But by the 1970s an ethical purity had set in and I saw reporters who would not even accept a free coffee or donut. I took the donut; I wasn't going to sell out for a measly snack.

I remember a Bucks County police chief who always used the "n-word." Today a newspaper might expose him as a bigot. I felt if I quoted him using the racial slur, we would never get another story out of that department.

Along those lines, a black criminal suspect was always identified as "Negro." If that word did not appear after the name, readers knew it was a white suspect.

That first job was with an afternoon daily, a species now extinct. Today's morning papers have deadlines around 1 a.m., allowing a full day to write and edit a story. Our workday started about 8 a.m. and we wrote like demons because the deadline was noon.

During those few morning hours, we might write about a governmental meeting from the night before, an auto accident that morning, perhaps a bank robbery, and certainly an obituary or two.

Reporting from the street close to deadline was a challenge because there were no cell phones. You always carried a lot of dimes and noted the nearest pay phone. I didn't think I could do it, but I soon learned to dictate a coherent story over the phone.

I recall many stories I wrote that first year, but one stands out in my memory. It involved a brief speech by a departing school board member. She was a somewhat eccentric college professor.

She declared that narcotic use was creeping onto college campuses and some day even high school kids, in this very district, might become addicts.

Like others in the room, I rolled my eyes and smirked. We just couldn't imagine suburban kids, from good, middle-class families using narcotics. Drug addicts were slum dwellers and jazz musicians. Weren't they?

My smug disdain for her silly warning was evident in the story I wrote.

I was very happy in my new profession. I liked all the deadline pressure and excitement. I look back upon that first job and conjure up a lot of good memories, but I also fret about what seems like a bleak future for newspapers.

Ron Avery is a former Daily News reporter. avery1321@gmail.com