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Writing business has changed since I started writing

By John Toth

The Bulletin

I sat down to write a column and then got busy doing other things, but I left the tab on the computer open, thinking I'd come back to it soon.

I got back to it 12 hours later. The screen still only contained my name. By the time I got back to it, I changed my mind. I didn’t want to write about my original topic, whatever it was. I wanted to write about - writing.

I wrote my first news story in 1977 for my college paper about one of the doors being locked at the college hall leading to the cafeteria.

“Why is it locked?” I asked the college’s head of maintenance?

“Because it’s broken,” he replied.

That’s how all this started. I typed the article out on my portable typewriter, which I still have, and submitted it the next day to the editor, who tore it apart.

“This needs a rewrite,” she said. “There is an open typewriter over there. Do it while what we talked about is still fresh in your mind.”

I thought I wrote a masterpiece about the broken door. I sat down at the typewriter (a fancy electric one) and tried it again. It was a lot easier to rewrite it using an electric typewriter rather than my little Made in Japan manual one.

I think my generation of professional writers is the last one that actually used typewriters, and it was sparingly at that. Word-processing computers were on their way, but my college paper didn’t have any.

We just had desks, a few typewriters and a very picky editor who never liked the first version of a story she read, no matter how many times I rewrote it before handing it over to her.

By the time we got ready to do a follow-up on the door because it was fixed and unlocked again, I was the sports editor in a one-person Sports Department. Someone else got stuck with the door story.

I then moved on to a local TV station as an intern on a public affairs program that didn’t pay anyone to appear on the show, nor their interns, but guests did receive a nice letter in the mail thanking them for their appearance.

Guess who had to type out those letters? The unpaid intern, yes - me.

How I wished that we had typing classes in high school. I couldn't make any mistakes. The letters had to be perfect. It took a while. That was my least favorite task at the station. My favorite one was picking up the cars from the rental place and driving them to the studio, from where we went to shoot on location.

I wrote a lot of the script on their fancy electric typewriter. There were no computers at the station. They still had film-editing booths next to video-editing ones.

I landed my first (barely) paying gig at the Bay City Tribune, where I was introduced to the word- processing computer and the floppy disks, which liked to eat stories as much as storing them.

I thought I was in journalism heaven when everything worked as it was supposed to. Writing became a lot more spontaneous, faster. I could just erase what I didn't like and start over. I used those new gadgets to write stories about county commissioners, education and law enforcement, with a little sports and editing thrown in.

Apparently, no public building doors broke while I was at the paper.

My big break came when the superintendent agreed to leave after the school board gave him a $50,000 severance pay - not a shabby deal in those days. But the board president refused to reveal how much it cost to persuade the superintendent to leave.

It was a basic open-records case, but my editor warned that the school district would just prolong releasing it, and it would take a while before we could see anything.

I started asking around and then called the departing superintendent to confirm it. Not too bad for a rookie reporter. The story ran the next day, including that school trustees refused to release the total.

I quickly found that there are faster ways to get information than by going through official channels. We ran a daily newspaper, not a monthly magazine, after all.

One reason I made deadline on my first “blockbuster” story was because of that fancy new word processor. It would have taken much longer on a typewriter.

But I still like typewriters.

I get on my old Brother portable occasionally and type out a story. But not this one, or any other story in this paper. It would take too long. And, I’m out of Wite-Out.


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