TYPING FAST, MAKING NEWSPAPERS
It’s spring 1973. I’m in eighth-grade at Liberty Junior High School.
There was no high school-orientation night to plot our high school courses. I don’t remember signing up for freshman year other than my mother’s strong feelings about one thing.
She said I should take typing; that I would use it.
That fall I learned that everything in typing begins on home row, and soon our sweet business-skills teacher, Ethel Sharp, helped us expand our range to other rows on the keyboard.
My friend Cheryl Rodenburg also took typing that fall. One weekend, we decided to borrow her step-grandmother’s portable typewriter and practice our Typing I skills.
We thought it would be fun to create a weekly newspaper in Philomath, the farm community where she lived.
Philomath, in the northwest tip of Union County, Indiana, isn’t an incorporated town, and there are no businesses. But there was a street light outside the Rodenburg home (actually, a security light, no doubt billed to the family). There were several houses in the neighborhood and a lot of cars and tractors passing through the main drag. City life when compared to our much more isolated farm.
I felt so alive that weekend; in love with our newspaper project. Whereas three years earlier we spent weekends in marathon sessions playing with Barbies, this was a new era and I knew it.
I felt as though I could work on our little newspaper 24/7 and I would never tire of it, ever, ever. The power of the press had reached Philomath! And I knew that whatever stories we came up with about the neighborhood, the people would read them. They might have suggestions for more stories, and feel a sense of pride at being in print.
But with only home row under our belts that weekend, we weren’t yet skilled enough to pull off a weekly newspaper, or even one issue.
I ached with a desire to type fluently, stringing not just pecked-out words but sentences, and paragraphs together, to doing something I couldn’t quite verbalize the significance of, but it amounted to making that keyboard sing with the poetry of everyday people’s stories.
At home, there sat an ancient typewriter in the back of a closet. Mom unearthed it, but it was heavy as a Model T, and the keys had to be pushed hard into submission to gather enough ink off the old ribbon to leave a print.
Back in typing class, we kept getting better. Every beginner’s goal became the chance to move up from the manual typewriter to the modern IBM Selectric. I still recall the hum and slight vibration of the machine under my fingers, and the way the keys clicked so easily compared to the clack of non-electric keys. When my fingers sat on home row of that Selectric, I felt as a race horse must feel, itching to get out of the starting gate and move.
The sound of typing became music to my ears, a symphony when others typed at the same time. As the years rolled on, I joined the high school newspaper staff, became editor my senior year, and then studied journalism in college.
It was there I was introduced to video display terminals (VDTs) that we used in 1980s and 1990s newspapering.
What had not changed were the sounds and appeal of creating news stories, just as we had attempted as beginner typists that fall in Philomath. Only by the early 1980s, there was a screen and a curser and it felt so space-age to backspace and delete a stray character rather than attempt a neat job with the typewriter eraser or correction fluid.
Of course computers changed everything. The keyboards were connected to nothing short of the world and all its information in the form of the internet. But it also meant that everyone else was connected to the world. Would they still need local newspapers?
At some point, the clickity-clack of newsroom Associated Press bulletins and breaking news, as well as features and stock reports that printed out of that magical AP wire machine became obsolete. Computers silently transmitted all that copy to us.
As the years continued, many smaller papers stopped using their own presses and instead, printed at centralized locations.
At one time, a newspaper office was a noisy place. The press rolled, the keyboards of first typewriters, then VDTs, then computers clicked. The AP wire machine cranked out copy. People came and went in open-concept newsrooms and advertising departments.
You learned to concentrate in the midst of much noise and many disruptions. You didn’t think about it. Or if you did, you thought it was great to be a part of the pre-deadline mix; that it would all come together, somehow, as if by magic, into a printed newspaper. And it would all happen again the next day.
Most days now, someone comes by the newspaper office and says, “Sure is quiet in here.”
It’s true, too. Our Mac keyboards are so quiet that reporters with light touches can’t even be heard typing. The silence is deafening to where sometimes I think: Are we really making a paper? It's all happening so quietly.
At some point, I trashed my mother’s typewriter, that jet-black, heavy-as-a-Model-T number. As Brian would say, I was in one of my cleaning frenzies.
In the newspaper office, we were gifted with the typewriter that belonged to long-time owner Walter Chambers. It sits on his desk that his family also gave us. They thought his things should be at the newspaper.
The only other typewriter in the building rests above our old-time morgue, where old stories were clipped and stored for future reference. The typewriter typed the name of the topics of those stories on small envelopes. We never use that typewriter anymore. But no one is inclined to toss it out either.
I think back to October 1973 and the craving to know how to make a keyboard sing. I wanted to type fast and make newspapers.
It’s fall 2017. I’m in my thirty-fourth year as a paid community journalist. I still want to type fast and make newspapers.
Maybe some things don't change.
10/18/2017 11:18:58 am
Donna, thank you for this wonderful trip back. You nailed it. I remember learning to type, too, way back when. Long before IBM Selectrics, and possibly even before electricity. But even before I learned to type, I was making a neighborhood newspaper by cutting out letters from actual newspapers and gluing them into words. What fun. What a memory. I wish our friend Ray were here to read your piece about making papers. I can imagine him tell you, "You've got ability."
10/18/2017 11:30:06 am
Oh Janis! Thank you for channeling Ray today!
In high school, we had to take typing. It was a 9 week course that everyone took. To this day, it is the one class (and learned skills) that I use the most. Back then, we couldn't have imagined the computers' daily influence to come. But it did and we were ready with "home row!" Thanks for sharing the memories!
10/22/2017 07:21:55 am
Such a useful lifelong skill.
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