Newspapers no longer chained to the printed word

Ernie Williamson

The Bulletin


Reporters were typing on old Remington typewriters when I started working at the Houston Post in 1972.


We edited and rearranged stories with pencils, scissors and glue pots. Linotypes set the stories in “hot metal”, and presses spit the printed product - often filled with typos - onto conveyor belts and into delivery trucks.


If you didn’t subscribe for home delivery, newspaper boxes were everywhere. “Hawkers” sold newspapers at busy corners.


Both the Post and the Chronicle were rolling in money. We thought it would never end.


Sure, we heard rumors of newspapers one day being put out on computers, but many of us were skeptical.


Nothing could beat having a newspaper at the breakfast table with your coffee. Or, so we thought.


I first realized the potential of the digital revolution and the Internet in 2005 with the arrival of Hurricane Rita.


Prior to that, newspaper folks hated covering weather. Publishing once a day meant reporting outdated news. It was frustrating. The printed paper was no match for television.


When Rita arrived, the Chronicle (the Post had been bought and closed by the Chronicle) had established an online presence.


During the storm, we were able to provide updated news while the print product couldn’t be delivered because of too much flooding and too little gas.


We even established an online hotline to answer questions from readers struggling to find gasoline or the best way out of town.


It was clear that digital journalism was here to stay.


Now, 10 years into retirement, I read the news on my laptop, or phone, or iPad and am amazed at some of the accomplishments.


I see newspapers doing things journalistically that seemed unfathomable 20 years ago.


Every morning in my email, I get a coronavirus tracker from the New York Times. It tells me the latest Covid count for Brazoria County.


On the day of this writing, the virus tracker told me that the day before Brazoria County had 194 new cases, a 7 percent increase from the previous day.


The tracker also told me that during the pandemic, 1 in 379 people in the county had died, and the vaccination rate for all ages was 59 percent.


And the virus tracker lets readers get the information from any county they want.


In my day, newspapers had no way to perform such a public service countrywide.


Technology has also changed newsrooms. Major newspapers have added visual investigation teams with spectacular results.


The visual investigation team at the New York Times combines traditional reporting with digital sleuthing and the forensic analysis of visual evidence to deconstruct important news events.


They even do it in a war zone. The visual investigators at the Times have:


• Used witness testimony and authenticated videos to show how Russian paratroopers executed at least eight Ukrainian men in a Kyiv suburb.


• Analyzed dozens of battlefield radio transmissions between Russian forces during the war’s early days and found the Russians were struggling with logistical problems.


• Uncovered chilling aerial videos from Ukraine that added to the evidence of atrocities against civilians.


Not to be outdone, The Washington Post has a Visual Forensics Team that uses cutting-edge technology to locate, verify and analyze on-the-ground-videos from major news events, providing readers around the world with closer examinations of how complex news moments unfolded.


For the moment, Internet advertising has put the squeeze on newspaper finances. But newspapers are adjusting and learning new possibilities.


I have been impressed with how digital journalism has progressed.


And that is hard for an old “print guy” to admit.


(Contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)