Wednesday, April 11, 2012

An old dog keeps learning new tricks


As a 56-year-old journalist who took a 15-year detour into the world of politics, adjusting to the Internet and social media world has been a long and sometimes painful process.

I always loved to write. As a child, I pounded away on an old manual typewriter, churning out short stories - usually a take on the old monster movies or science fiction adventures that were shown on the Shock Theater programs popular on television in the 1960s and ‘70s. When my parents bought me an electric typewriter, allowing me to craft words at the speed of light, I thought that must be the epitome of progress and modern technology.

Fast forward to 1983, when I started in the newspaper business. There on my desk sat a huge desktop computer. The blinking curser on the monitor whispered, “Here I am. Create something.” Learning how to save stories, slug

them correctly, and transmit them to their next destination seemed like a giant leap into the approaching 21st century.

Through the years I have worked at three newspapers (one of them twice), with advanced technology awaiting my arrival at each stop. Pagination was a big step – building newspaper pages on a computer screen became quite the luxury as opposed to years of building them by hand with slivers of paper made sticky by wax machines so they would adhere to the grid pages.

Next came the biggest change of all, the advent of the Internet and, eventually, the emergence of social networking sites like My Space, soon to be dwarfed by the popularity of Facebook and Twitter. But while those developments were happening, I was on a long sabbatical from the newspaper business, working in politics.

When I returned to the ranks of the ink-stained wretches last year, I was confronted with a new world. I was not entirely unfamiliar with it – I had made extensive use of online technology for politics and campaigns – but it was an adjustment to adapt to the new realities of journalism and the Internet.

Today, most newspapers have websites where many or most of the top stories of the day are posted. Some newspapers charge a fee to access their sites, others do not. The tug-of-war between giving away for free the same information that print readers are charged a price for is an evolving business model with which each newspaper wrestles.

Accompanying most newspaper websites is a feature allowing readers to post comments on the editorial content of the day, a development over which this old dog frets the most.

Throughout the history of the newspaper business, letters to the editor were the means by which readers voiced their thoughts and opinions. Most newspapers had strict guidelines for such letters. Each one had to be signed by the writer, and contain a complete ­address, as well as a phone number for verification – and we always called to verify.

Today’s younger generation has grown up with the Internet and expects to be able to comment from their smart phones or other handheld devices at the drop of a hat. They often do so using screen names rather than their real names. And they see no reason why just about anything they say should not be posted online for potentially millions of Internet users to see.

As someone who came of age in the business being taught that no unsigned opinion ever sees the light of day in a newspaper, I still have a hard time adjusting to the posting of comments by often-anonymous posters.
Because of my insistence on it, our newspaper in Hillsboro has a stricter policy than many papers in regard to online comments, but I know that many of my younger colleagues don’t really understand why.

They have grown up in the age of websites devoted to gossip, and the ability of anyone with computer access to have their own website dedicated to any and every subject under the sun. The Internet has allowed everyone to be a publisher.

In a way, this development is a great leap for the First Amendment and democracy in general. But it also allows everyone to be their own editor, and too often no editing at all is done. Increasingly, it’s becoming more difficult to separate news from gossip, fact from fiction, or substance from fluff. The vetting process that once existed is increasingly being lost in the Wild, Wild West of the Internet.

But before you conclude that I’m just an old fuddy-duddy out of touch with the modern world, there are things about the Internet that I appreciate.

For one, it’s exciting to be able to produce a breaking news story and post it online immediately. It was often frustrating back in the day to have a major story ready to break, and spend hours or even days worrying that a competitor, especially of the radio and TV variety, might break it before the next edition of the newspaper hit the stands. Today, thanks to the Internet, posting a breaking news story online requires only as much time as it takes for our speedy little fingers to type it.

The emergence of online video technology has also been a boon to newspapers. Recently, a major fire engulged a former lumberyard in Hillsboro. Within an hour of the fire’s outbreak, we posted raw video of the event in progress, which in turn was watched by thousands of online viewers even as the blaze was still burning.   

And the next step is even more exciting and immediate – live broadcasting. Technology has progressed to the point where newspapers can now offer as-it-happens meetings, sports, and other events through live online broadcasts that further blur the lines between the mediums.

What probably bothered me most about the Internet version of our newspaper was the fear that it would hasten the departure of our traditional print product. But so far, the opposite has been true. Since we made the firm decision to devote the time and resources necessary to make our website a first-rate, current and informative product, our circulation numbers for our print edition have actually begun to rise.

My conclusion is that by improving one part of our brand, we increased the value of the overall brand in general. Rather than diminishing our print edition by giving some news away for free on the Internet, we have instead enhanced our entire product in the minds of our readers by making our website top-notch, and it has been reflected in print sales as well.

So, this old dog continues to learn new tricks. A lesson I try to remember is that the world is changing and technology is roaring down the track whether I want it to or not. When given a choice, it’s better to drive the train than to get run over by it.

Gary Abernathy is publisher of The Times-Gazette in Hillsboro. ­

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