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Technology continues to expedite reporting of news

Jan. 15, 2009 @ 10:05 AM

HUNTINGTON — Today’s reporters hustle from one assignment to the next with lightweight laptops and digital recorders, but it wasn’t long ago that newspaper staffs lugged cassette tape players and bulky equipment or even wrote stories in longhand to get the scoop.

The Herald-Dispatch celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, and employees of the past several decades say the technological advances made over the years are mind boggling.

When Tom D. Miller began working as a reporter in 1958, he had a typewriter. As a political reporter, he often traveled to the state Capitol and to political conventions across the country. He carried a large, gray case like a briefcase he typed on to send stories back to the office over phone lines.

 Miller retired in 1996, and while the 70-year-old continues to write political columns for The Herald-Dispatch, he said today’s process is much easier.

He recalled spending many hours in the 1960s and ’70s at the Capitol building searching through papers to see who spent how much on what and similar topics.

“There was a written record of everything, and if you were willing to go spend the time in the basement of the Capitol, you could find out the information,” he said. 

When he wrote an award-winning series on absentee land ownership in the state in the 1970s, Miller said he spent time in almost all of the 55 counties’ courthouses doing research.

Now, much of that information is on the Internet. Miller recently worked on a story concerning state government salaries — numbers he quickly located online. If he had this assignment decades ago, he probably would have searched through papers for hours.

“A reporter who doesn’t do his homework now is really lazy,” he said.

Writing and research aren’t the only things that are quicker, though. Actually assembling the newspaper takes less time and effort today, too.

Former Herald-Dispatch production manager Jerry Epling started working for the newspaper in 1959. He remembers when making the paper required about 80 people in three shifts using linotype machines. He said the fourth floor of The Herald-Dispatch was full of typesetting machines.

“Every line in the paper was a piece of metal. The paper was literally put together with lead,” he said. “The paper was put out back then by sheer manpower.”

Nowadays, the 69-year-old said the same job can be done by two people.

Epling said the biggest change of his career came after newspaper giant Gannett Co. purchased The Herald-Dispatch from the Long family in the 1970s. The company took the paper from hot metal composition to photo composition in the early 1970s.  

Around 1984, The Herald-Dispatch got its first image setter that would allow graphics and text to merge, he said.

“As all this progressed, we had employees who were reaching retirement age. We were very, very lucky that we didn’t have to lay anybody off,” he said.

He said attrition and advances in production continued through the 1990s as equipment became faster and more efficient.

Changing technology continues to be an area of interest for Mike Perry, who collects and displays old printing presses and equipment at his Heritage Farm Museum and Village in Huntington. Perry said it’s important, though, to remember those people who sometimes lose their jobs to technological advances.

However, advances in printing did provide opportunities for growth, too, according to Epling.

Epling said the start of River Cities Printing in the 1990s at the Herald-Dispatch actually created more jobs and is one thing he’s most proud of being a part of at the paper.

“Instead of having a smaller staff, we probably left with 14 more employees than we would have had if we hadn’t started commercial printing,” he said. 

River Cities Printing specializes in printing advertising, marketing and circulation materials, including stick-on ads, full-color front page adhesive ads and other items. That’s all possible because of the evolution of the equipment in decades prior, Epling said.

“It is just mind boggling to think about. When I started working there, the Long family had just purchased a press,” he said.

When the press was installed, color was available only on the front page of the newspaper, he said. Staff had to plan two days ahead just to run a red headline on page one.

“They thought that was all the color they’d ever need,” Epling said.

Now staff can put color almost anywhere in the paper almost right up to press deadline, he said.

Perry said printing is one of the major technological advances that each generation has expanded upon.

“The changes in printing are really a wonderful way to explain all the technological changes,” he said. “It’s one that we all can relate to because it has dramatically affected our lives.”

The change is clear between when type was set one letter at a time and today, he said. Now people get excited over shopping online, he said, but it wasn’t that long ago that people were thrilled by the possibility of shopping from catalogs — something that only became possible because of advances in printing and color.

“It’s interesting to show how lots of things have changed,” Perry said.

While The Herald-Dispatch now maintains a daily circulation of 27,600 and a Sunday circulation of 32,200, the newspaper also receives about 4 million online page views each month, with about 350,000 unique monthly visitors. The newspaper’s Web site was launched in 1998.

Many people like Perry continue to be excited by possibility. While he loves looking back in time, he also likes to imagine what  lies ahead.

“Communities and companies and people who prosper learn to adapt to change. Those who struggle or resist against it often just don’t make it,” he said. 

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