Journey from a manual typewriter to a tin cup?

Gary Cunard

Journey from a manual typewriter to a tin cup?

I suppose it's a sign you're getting old when a typewriter similar to the one you wrote your first news story with is now nailed on the wall of a restaurant as decoration!

I noticed that last week a few hours after a friend sent me a link that explained one of the most depressing potential changes to hit the community newspaper business in my lifetime. More about that at the end of this column.

Years ago, as a college student exploring the possibility of a career in journalism, I started an internship at a medium-sized daily in Eastern Ohio, a darn good paper with some of the finest editors and reporters I've ever worked with.

At first, they perched me at a small typing stand, gave me a rickety chair and an upright manual typewriter that may have come over with the Pilgrims -- and they answered a lot of questions from a dumb college kid.

The constant buzz of a newsroom, the excitement of never knowing what would happen next, having to deal with all kinds of situations and people, good and bad, and getting it all done under the constant pressure of multiple deadlines every day was addicting.

I was supposed to stay six weeks -- but I stayed six months before returning to the college classroom! Even then I had to be dragged back to class.

I didn't understand it at the time, but I had contracted a rare disease called "ink in the blood" and once that happens you end up a lot like a character in the movie "Front Page," who said he was "hunch-backed, half-blind and bumming cigarettes from the copy boy."

Okay, I avoided the cigarettes, but I'm not sure how since for the first 20 years I spent in this business, newsrooms were most noteworthy for the huge cloud of cigarette smoke that was enough to choke a horse if you stood up and innocently inhaled.

Even that first editor, a woman who was among the best and most creative editors I've ever known, was a chain-smoking machine, often with one clenched between her lips and another burning in an ash tray, sending tendrils of smoke upward into the cloud above her head.

Somehow, she managed to keep the operation relentlessly moving toward multiple deadlines a day, selected photos, edited stories, designed pages and found time to answer questions and offer suggestions to staff -- and usually make coverage assignments.

But as busy as she was, she always found time to craft a pithy, one or two line commentary called "Intercepted Letter" that ran on the editorial page.

It was anonymous -- usually signed only "Old Man River" -- but it often ripped the hide off the toughest politicians around, especially U.S. Rep. Wayne L. Hays, he of the later Elizabeth Ray scandal.

A couple of decades later, she retired, probably because newspapers like that one were being gobbled up by larger corporations, and spent her final years teaching college kids about journalism. Lucky kids!

Those were fun, fascinating days -- and not at all like what this business -- and our society -- has become.

I'm not entirely sure what has changed -- but there is a different attitude today and it's not an improvement.

Years ago, radio -- anyone remember radio? -- covered local news with brief stories that merely touched the highlights. Most were just teases about was really happening.

It was left to newspapers to fill in all the details, to provide the photographs, present the opposing and often bitterly divided opinions and perspective on the day's happening -- and everyone wanted all that information.

I can remember people lined up just outside the pressroom when a new edition began to roll off the presses -- and Heaven help us if delivery to homes was delayed even an hour or so!

Years later, at one newspaper I ran in Tennessee, we devised a simple system. We had a special flag that flew on the front of the building when the latest edition was ready -- and it worked well.

Here in Louisburg, until very recently, there were some folks who were waiting in the parking lot for the latest edition -- and sometimes even pecked on the window to ask how soon it would be ready.

But something has happened -- and it ain't good.

Folks don't seem to care as much as they once did.

They still read newspapers, some avidly, but something is missing.

I suspect it has to do with the internet -- and the incredible "offerings" of all kinds of garbage that passes for news there. People read about the latest foibles of stars -- although why they care so much (or at all!) -- is beyond me.

The biggest change, I think, is that so many people don't seem to care if what they read or hear is true, they just want it to confirm their own opinions.

For heaven's sake, don't confuse them with facts, their minds are made up. And they will verbally -- and sometimes physically -- attack anyone who presents an opposing view or opinion.

I suspect that's part of the reason they aren't quite as avid readers of newspapers as before. As any reporter will tell you, nothing kills a good rumor story faster than the facts. And newspapers "kill" a lot of those concocted stories on the internet with researched, verified facts.

People today don't seem to want to hear anything that doesn't confirm their already-existing opinions. They just want to live in an echo chamber that is set up to reaffirm what they already believe -- and the facts be damned.

Of course, it's more than that.

Newspapers survive on advertising dollars -- and the way our economy has changed means that many of those dollars have dried up.

The proliferation of big box and, more recently, small box retail stores, have destroyed many small businesses who just cannot compete with the buying power of these mega companies with hundreds of stores.

Just look at Louisburg.

We used to have four major grocery stores, now we have three. We used to have a large, multi-franchise car dealership on the southern edge of town that's now merely a used car outlet for a company out of Roanoke Rapids.

Several ladies dress shops, a large, excellent menswear store, two jewelry stores and many other businesses have quietly closed their doors, to be replaced by chain operations or not at all..

Even some of the once-local businesses have sold out to big companies based elsewhere and are run by people who couldn't find Franklin County without GPS.

Even businesses that are still here have changed drastically, especially banks.

It used to be that banks were enthusiastic boosters of the local community and actually bought advertising to help support local athletics, congratulate recent high school graduates and to help encourage and support local projects and events. Not as much anymore.

It's a different world -- and people are noticing.

On Monday, I got a handwritten letter from a 94-year-old subscriber who lives in Raleigh who asked a question I didn't want to answer.

She said: "We lost the radio station.

"We lost the hospital.

"Are we going to lose The Franklin Times, too?"

The answer is complicated -- and the questions need clarification.

Yes, the radio station went dark for a time but it is back on the air, although with a far different format and it apparently doesn't have the resources to cover the community like it did several years ago. The changes are the result of the community changes outlined above.

Yes, we lost the hospital for a long while -- but we at least got part of it back. It's not a full, general hospital these days, but we have an emergency room and efforts are being made to improve access to health care and doctors that were lost through the mismanagement of Novant Healthcare. It's getting better ... but there is a long way to go to get back what was here a decade or two ago.

So, that brings us to her final question, are readers going to lose The Franklin Times?

We certainly hope not -- but it is a very, very difficult time.

Since the economic collapse of 2007, we have reduced staff by more than 50 percent and struggle to cover the news, although I think we do a pretty good job compared to chain-owned papers in communities like ours.

The staff that we have left is very experienced and we've been able to keep our computer equipment, cameras, software, etc., at levels that help us put out the best paper possible and get it done on time every week.

But it's a struggle. Costs -- especially items like insurance that are essentially out of our control -- continue to spiral upward.

The government makes life more difficult, requires more forms, inflicts more rules and regulations and, in what infuriates all small businesses, collects taxes from us and then gives the money to the big, often multi-national, corporations that not only do little to support local communities, they often take the money entirely out of our country!

We also struggle to deal with the large businesses that operate here, often behind the wall of advertising agencies which are hired to work relentlessly to keep advertising rates low -- or to demand rate decreases even as our costs climb.

As an example, one well-known big corporation recently sent us a fax asking about rates for next year -- and it began with a large, boldface line that read: We will not tolerate a rate increase!

Recently a car dealer offered to buy a few ads, provided we sell them at half of the listed advertising rate.

Fine, I said, just as soon as you let our staff buy vehicles off your lot at half the sticker price!

I mean, isn't turnabout fair play? Apparently it wasn't!

After all that, the answer is that we're here, we're plugging along and we appreciate the support we have from both our advertising customers and our loyal readers.

There's nothing that makes an old reporter like me feel valued any more than going to the post office, as I did on Monday, and bringing back a fistful of subscription renewals mixed with a few new subscriber payments!

A change looming

In addition to the question from a reader that sparked this column there was another development that is supposed to be good news -- but, honestly, it gives me the heebie-jeebies!

On June 6, U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, CA-11, introduced a bill called the Saving Local News Act (H.R. 3126) that recognizes newspapers as a "public good" and would make it easier for written news organization to become non-profits which, he said, would allow them to focus on content instead of profit margins and would reduce their tax burden.

His bill was supported by a number of professional organizations, including the National Newspaper Association, of which we are a member.

"Local journalism has been a bedrock of American society for over 200 years. I remember when dedicated reporters sat in the front row of city council meetings to keep communities informed and to increase accountability. Today many local newspapers are dying out - penny pinching until they close or are bought up and sold off piecemeal by hedge funds. This bill would allow papers to renew their focus on quality content and flourish unencumbered by ever-increasing demands for greater profits," said Congressman DeSaulnier.

"Community newspapers are woven into the fabric of American society and provide accurate and trusted information that improves the lives of individuals in the communities they serve. This measure would provide news organizations with the means to better rise to challenges and continue to play a vital role in their communities by holding the feet of the powerful to the fire and giving voice to the powerless," said Jim Ewert, general counsel, California News Publishers Association.

All of that may be necessary -- but it is a troubling trend that could see newspapers go the route of National Public Radio which spends way too much of its time begging for money and running every contest and gimmick known to man to raise money.

And as for me, standing on a street corner with a tin cup begging for money to either pay the staff or the health insurance bill, isn't exactly the way I want to end a long career of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

I suppose it's better than the alternative of closing up or converting a paper with a legacy of nearly a century and a half into a sorry fish wrapper.

But, as my daddy might have said, it's a helluva way to run a railroad!

In the meantime, we'll keep slogging forward -- and hoping that light at the end of the tunnel isn't an oncoming freight train.