Journalism’s Salvation Came With Clean Fingers

Originally posted April 20, 2010

Yes, the iPad revolutionizes the way we do business. For journalists and the general public, the iPad puts the most current news right into our hands.

You can “interact” with breaking news while you kick back on the couch, you can re-post news stories while you’re at a restaurant. And it may even save some newsroom jobs.

But those benefits apparently pale in comparison to what many consider the iPad’s best feature: Newsprint won’t get on our hands any more.

In a recent query by this reporter, that was the top answer as to why people prefer it to the newspaper.

At one time, the creation, production and delivery of just the early edition of the daily newspaper was handled by thousands of workers.

In the 1980s, I had a big-city job at The New York Daily News building on 42nd Street, you know, Superman’s building, complete with the Earth in the center of the lobby and all. It was quite empowering working there, and it was no surprise Clark Kent wanted to rip off his clothes and save the city. Hundreds of us felt like we were doing that every day too.

At that time, there were people whose job description included answering the phone in the newsroom. There were clerks in the photo department. There were more than five reporters — who each had a desk and a phone and whose primary function was to write the news on a typewriter, word processor or basic computer. Heck, there were even columnists and feature writers in those days.

After you wrote your story, a proofreader checked it, one of several editors would put in his or her two cents, a headline writer would ask you ridiculous questions about it, and eventually, your story — and then the page would be delivered into production — “The Back Shop.” The Back Shop was a semi-sanctuary where you could commiserate with any one of dozens of middle-aged (street) wise men, planted before their respective easels, cigarettes or cigars aloft. They would slice thousands of galleys of copy with Exacto knives, run the ribbons of copy through the hot wax machine and slap it all up on the page in front of them.

“Hey kid,” gravel-voiced Louie call out, all 5-foot-6 furrowed eyebrow of him pointing his knife at the page.

“Is this supposed to be the end of the sentence? You got a comma over here.”
We would both study the page. I’d give him the go-ahead.
“OK, OK Louie. Do it.”

And with one slice of the knife, he would turn the bothersome comma into a period and all was right with the world. There was Louie’s reassuring smile through a puff of smoke, we’d give the page one last look, and off it would go to the presses.

If you pushed through the warehouse door, you’d be greeted by overpowering conveyor belt noise and smell of printer ink, thousands of black, white and grey pages whisking up and into the anonymity of the heavens. People folded the papers into bundles, tied them and then tossed them from person to person and into the back of the next of hundreds of waiting trucks outside.

The trucks would disperse in all directions into the night to accomplish the repetitive task of workers throwing the papers from truck down onto the sidewalks at newsstands across the city and the suburbs as daylight broke. A proud accomplishment.

My paper.

On the train into the city the next morning, I would see the car full of people interacting with the paper as only New York commuters can. A few were reading it, a lady was sitting on one, there were pages of it on the floor that people were walking over, it was draped over a commuter’s sleeping body, someone was cleaning fog off a window with a balled up page of it.

And then, amid the crowd, like an apparition guiding the way to the future, there sat an older businessman, with a precise haircut, a clean grey suit, reading the paper wearing white gloves. White gloves?

What would Louie in the back shop think?

And the memory of that passenger haunted me over the years as my friends were laid off and papers were starting to shut down.

It was amazing to me that with all the effort that went into putting out the paper, the readers’ most repeated complaint was that they didn’t want to get their hands dirty. All those years, all those employees, and the people who fought for our right to know. All lost because of ink-stained fingers.

So for me, the iPad brings a bit of hope. You won’t step on it on the train, you can lay on the couch with it on a Sunday, and you can read it with your cup of coffee at the kitchen table in the morning.

And all that without those little white gloves.

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