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Tuesday 27 July 2021

Looking Back, Through iPad Glass Darkly

I got a really good look at the future of print newspapers nine years ago, when The Canberra Times editor Rod Quinn and I were chatting in his office about me fixing his father’s old Corona portable typewriter. Quinn had just returned from a meeting in Sydney with Fairfax’s overpaid “visionaries”, and they had converted him to their idea of where newspapers were headed. They were at least a decade too late, of course, because The Canberra Times, like so many newspapers, had already elected to go down a path that would lead to its demise as a creditable newspaper. That it has now well and truly reached that destination is being made evident, more than ever, with its 36-hour-old coverage of the Tokyo Olympic Games. I’m not sure why it still bothers.

Long before Quinn’s time in charge, the Times had taken the economy passage toward online news, one that ensured it was ultimately destined to crash and burn. Instead of hiring people who had some knowledge of digital content, and any sort of zeal for it, the Times decided print journalists would be used to do a job for which they were both utterly untrained and in which they had absolutely no interest. The Fairfax seers had tipped into their lolly jar and sent Quinn back to Canberra with a basket full of their latest iToys – an iPhone, an iPad and the latest Yoga laptop. “These platforms are the future for newspapers,” said Quinn, as he fiddled with buttons while his rag began its steady descent into the fiery flames that now engulf it. I wanted point out that whatever it was capable of, an iPad to a typewriter is a hazy lazy doodle to a Monet. It just doesn’t inspire effort or class.

But Quinn was admiringly playing with the tools of the Times’ coming destruction, oblivious to how odious they were to someone who had started in print newspapers 47 years earlier, using a typewriter and having his words turned into hot type, laid into formes, placed in presses and printed with ink on paper. Each of those actions had a feel to it, a sight and sense of creativity, a smell and a noise that made the process real and tangible. Print newspapers, through their ink, got into your blood, they lived and breathed with you. As I got up to walk away from the ugly, soulless pieces of plastic and glass on Quinn’s desk, I turned and said, “Oh, and by the way, I’m applying for a redundancy.” “But you’re too young to retire,” he said. “And I’m too old for that rubbish,” I replied.

So I went home to my typewriters and never looked back. It was 2012 and I was blogging like crazy, even typecasting. I had the time to drive to Melbourne (when it was safe to do so) to pick up a Salem Hall from ScienceWorks, I had the money to buy beautiful machines, like an Adler 32 portable, a green Invicta and a Printype Oliver, I had the time to mess around with FuNkOMaTiCs and to restore a Remington 16 to give to a young former colleague, Christopher Knaus. I like to think this  beast inspired Chris, then one of those gifted young reporters capable of writing word pictures which put television and radio news to shame. Chris has since gone on to become recognised as one of Australia’s finest journalists, working for The Guardian, and I’m hardly surprised. I hope in these salad says for him that he still looks at that big old Rem and remembers the exasperated night sub-editor, trying to squeeze fat round click bait into tiny square template holes.

Things got tough after that and there were times when I really feared I’d be joining the local branch of the homeless, those people that Boston Globe columnist Jack Thomas wrote about with some empathy in 1992. I had to sell off almost all of my wonderful typewriter collection. There were bloodsuckers happy to take them off my hands for a small fraction of the price they were worth, but what choice did I have? It was that or starve. Someone in America called me a philistine for offloading my machines. I wanted to reach in through the iPhone screen and strangle the insensitive bastard. But I struggled on and eventually the typewriter gods took pity, and my life began to turn around. The one lesson I learned from it all was to identify the things that caused me stress and to eliminate them. As I think back on it now, that evening, looking at Rod Quinn’s iToys, probably caused me as much angst as anything else I was to encounter. It may not have sunk in fully at the time, but he was showing me the tools that would cause an industry’s death. The sight of them was what certainly drove me our the door.

These are the things that came to mind after reading Jack Thomas’s last column. When I saw his Mencken quote, I realised I had spent 47 years living the life of a king. Like Thomas, to me print newspapers were a daily wonder, a miracle. I had loved brushing past at least within a million miles of the shadows of Hemingway and Gallico, of Runyon and Rice and Red Smith. After all, they too had used these same machines, the same techniques, had strained to beat deadlines and in their haste took care to avoid errors. They had experienced the same extreme exhilaration at seeing their words so quickly and clearly in print on paper. I had talked their talk, walked their walk.

I’ve seldom felt even the slightest bit of pity for those I left behind, those poor souls still trying to squeeze click bait into tiny holes. I had once prided myself on an ability to write great headlines, headlines which captured the guts of a story in four decks of 42-point Bodoni bold over two columns. There’s no skill in click bait, it’s mostly just misleading, regurgitated vomit. What I do feel sorry about, though, is that we are now approaching a third generation of young people, attracted to journalism by visions of things long gone, people who have never used a typewriter to write a news story. They’ve never felt the thrill of winding a fresh sheet of newsprint on to a platen, knowing they were about to write 600 fine words in less than half an hour. They’ve never experienced the tension of hesitating for that split second before committing themselves to their opening paragraph, knowing they had but one shot at getting it right, of writing the one that would grab their readers. Of handing the typed sheets to a copy editor. Of waiting to see an almost imperceptible nod of approval as the story is read by someone else for the very first time.

It’s not like that anymore. It’ll never be that way again. The typewriters have all gone, replaced by bits of plastic and glass that have no style, no character, no soul. They are a nothingness that spawn a nothingness. It's all that's left.


Richard P said...

Newspaper journalism at its best seems to have been driven by deadlines: the pressure of having a limited time to produce something worthy and inalterable. Now everything is alterable, and there are no deadlines, or perhaps every moment is a deadline: there is constant pressure to publish stuff immediately. No wonder most of it is dreck.

Johnpyyc said...

Morning Robert:

Nice piece of writing. Makes you want to go to past times.


Bill M said...

Same thing happened to radio...put it on line. Without newspapers and radio the world will really be lost. We are near that point now.

Ted said...

Sad times. ):
Sorta went through that in the printing industry too - I grew up in the days when type was set by a professional typesetting house at 10 cents a line, and we pasted it up onto mechanicals that got shot on a giant stat camera into high-contrast line negatives, which we then rubylithed and burned onto photosensitive metal plates. It was only then that you could get the job near a printing press. :D
It was about 1986 that everyone started buying Laser printers and the typesetting pros all went out of business. We thought that was pretty great for our production costs, but it wasn't many more years before high-resolution color copiers and inkjet printers rendered us printers out of work too. :P
Ahh well, the world moves on. Now we just have to live with writers who can't spell or construct a sentence longer than a clickbait headline. Are we better off? Hardly feels like it.

James Preminger said...

Great story. I just wrote a friend that it seemed like everyone in the communications field, in public relations, etc., is a former award-winning journalist. When print journalists like myself left newspapers we found ourselves strangely alone, like a soldier returning from overseas to civilian life. There are no debriefings for us former journalists, no support organizations while we looked for a new career midlife. I've gotten into manual typewriters quite a bit in the last few years, which offer me light and hope and enjoyment as a writer.

rino breebaart said...

It's the slow decay of quality writing too. When everything's targeted for maximum clicks and engagement, you'll write anything to get attention. It's a hard and fast chase to the bottom of the barrel. And here we are. Journalists were rebranded as 'content providers' about 15 years ago and now everything is just 'content' -- instant, frivolous, shallow. A scroll, maybe a like. And everyone competing against eachother for the same eyeballs.

Problem is: once the younger generation's attention spans have been shot to bits, awash in content, what will they hunger for to ameliorate it? Books? (Note the irony of 'long form' as a category). The outlets for good writing and thought become smaller and more niche and lower-paid by the day. I can't say I'm positive...

Anonymous said...


Marilyn said...

Quite moving, and, as usual, rather thought-provoking.