College journalists try publishing an issue without computers
Students at Florida Atlantic University are putting out their final summer issue on machinery that’s older than they are, reports Michael Koretzky. They’re writing their stories on manual typewriters and copyediting them in pencil. “They lay it all out with pica poles and proportion wheels. They paste it all up with X-Acto knives and rubber cement.” A few of the students have even dressed the part of ’70′s-era journalists, looking a little bit like Vinnie Barbarino. Editor-in-chief Gideon Grudo says of the old-school publishing experience:

Today one of the ribbons on a typewriter stopped working. But no one has left or gotten antsy. We’re all working together. If this momentum continues, imagine what we can accomplish when our iMacs, HD cameras, and Google are given back to us. I think this project has single-handedly exposed us to the power of what we’ve had all along – and what we’ve completely taken for granted.

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  • Anonymous

     This is exactly the way we did it when I worked at The Atlantic Sun in the 1970s. Worked just fine. If anyone there comes across my pica pole please let me know.

    Ken Herman
    Austin American-Statesman
    FAU Class of ’75

  • David_McClurkin

    Ah, the memories!  As editor my senior year – 1950′s – life on deadline was just as described.  I had the advantage of having a dad who was a union printer and helped me to understand the processes that today’s media producers could never imagine.

  • Trevor Butterworth

    No one, surely, would wish to go back to the day of manually justifying type, but the reality is you learn by method, and technology, replete with shortcuts, deprives you of a certain kind of deep engagement with a process. My first job was teaching designers at a London agency to use early desktop publishing software (c 1988/1989). Because they had been taught to do everything either manually, or through linotype, their level of precision, their knowledge of space and layout and form was so much deeper than anything the technology could replicate. They adapted technology to their vision rather than use technology to find their vision. That’s the difference. I learned more from them about design than they learned from me. It was similarly illuminating to get to print using metal type and a chase. These students should be on their knees thanking the stars or a deity for having such a wise teacher.

  • Bradley J. Fikes

    OK, that’s a great job of concrete explanation. I was curious because one of my first jobs (in the mid-80s) was at such a paper. Linotype, manual typewriters, a photo machine “made in U.S. zone of Germany”, etc. I am so glad to have left that era behind. Perhaps today’s students need a similar reminder.

  • Bradley J. Fikes

    OK, that’s a great job of concrete explanation. I was curious because one of my first jobs (in the mid-80s) was at such a paper. Linotype, manual typewriters, a photo machine “made in U.S. zone of Germany”, etc. I am so glad to have left that era behind. Perhaps today’s students need a similar reminder.

  • Brandon Ballenger

    Sure, Bradley. It’s not that you understand the new technology better, per se. It’s that you grasp what you’ve taken for granted. It’s about changing the way students think who’ve never seen things done differently. 

    For example, with design — college designers may get that layouts should be modular, but don’t flex their creativity much. Head here, photo there, copy flows in there. But when you have to paste-up the same layout and things don’t line up (from estimating or just doing the math wrong) you start playing with it, realize you can run a photo 30% or 50% bigger and make everything fit — and look nicer. Hopefully, you take that willingness to play with you.

    When you photograph with a traditional SLR film camera, you’ve got a limited number of frames. You realize you have to make them count, and you have to shoot them well — there’s no spray and pray, you either get apertures and f stops and depth-of-field or you don’t. Same thing when you’re developing — photo paper is expensive. You hopefully come out of that learning how to use a camera better, and recognizing that if you can take a dozen digital shots without consequences and pick the best, you come out with a better photo than if you just took one photo and called it quits.

    When you have to use a manual typewriter, and when you’re on deadline, you realize how important it is to have a working lede in your head and to know where the story is going, because retyping paragraphs and moving around sentences is a huge pain. You don’t have spellcheck, so you realize you’re a poor speller when you see the massively marked up page the copy editor comes back with. 

    And nobody has Google for this project. You want to know why there’s no “1″ key on the typewriter, or how to set the margins, or how to change the ribbon when the keys aren’t making any impression on the page (or that you even need to change the ribbon)? You tinker and figure it out on your own, or you get up and find somebody who knows. Hopefully you learn to be less reliant on technology, and become less judgmental of the people who didn’t have smart phones. On the other hand, you start consciously thinking about the advantages you have and ignored – like the ability to have a video meeting on Google+ between editors in the newsroom or at home and a reporter in the field, or to take the initiative and learn new skills online, etc.

    You can learn all these lessons in a hundred ways, but this project brings them home (as JuniorJourno says) in a way that’s fun and teaches collaboration.

  • Anonymous

    They’re obviously learning to work as a team while having fun. Team work is underestimated in journalism and fun is often neglected in learning. 

  • Bradley J. Fikes

    Brandon, the “appreciate what they’ve got” part I understand. But would you explain precisely how students learning “how things use to be done in a quirky way” helps them take more advantage of modern technology?

  • Brandon Ballenger

    The project is designed to teach students (who aren’t over 40) how things used to be done in a quirky way so they appreciate what they’ve got and take more advantage of it. They’ve obviously not going to do it with every issue.

    So, uh, kudos for missing the point, Jeff.

  • danielrubin

    I hope the instructor is kicking back on a beanbag chair, listening to the Doobie Brothers on headphones the size of Cinnabons.

  • jeffrey rubin

    that is how anyone over 40 prolly did their school newspaper, back in the stone age, aka the 1980s (or earlier). so, uh, kudos for another reinvention of the wheel.