Wednesday, June 8, 2011

“The times they are a-changin’ ”

It’s not news – Bob Dylan wrote in the early 1960s that “The times they are a changin’.”

I got my start in community journalism in late 1983, the same year the woman who I would marry about nine months later first smiled at me and stole my heart from across a typesetting machine in the newsroom of a small newspaper, the Rawlins Daily Times in south-central Wyoming.

Back then, newspapers were suffering after a recession had unemployment soaring and knocked down advertising. It took me about 18 months after I graduated to land that first journalism job. I worked 11 of those months in a warehouse, and about six months before that for a friend who paid me what he could afford and let me sleep on his couch in exchange for my work.

Today, the scenario for the newspaper industry is similar to what it was 28 years ago, except that since then, someone threw in the Internet as a monkey wrench that has doubly vexed newspapers.

In 1983, the Daily Times’ computer system ran from a huge, boxlike mainframe unit housed in an air-conditioned “closet” (actually more like a walk-in closet) behind the pressroom. A large man with round glasses would pop in from time to time when there was trouble; he would press a button or type in a command or, heaven forbid, switch us to the backup mainframe, losing a large chunk of the day’s work in the process, until a replacement circuit board could be shipped in for the main unit. I remember once seeing him through the glass on the door to that room as he prepared to replace a circuit board or some other part of the unit. He was pulling a pair of yellow latex kitchen gloves up to his elbows, apparently to protect the circuit board from any potential static electricity.

Over time, computer rooms changed, the equipment seemed to get smaller (but more parts apparently were needed, because the computer rooms themselves always seemed to expand).

Today, publications are dropping servers and such in favor of cloud computing, where information is stored “in the cloud” – in other words, on servers that are part of the Internet system as opposed to servers owned and maintained by the individual or company.

But of course in 1983, there was no public Internet, either, according to Dave Marshall’s History of the Internet at NetValley,com.

Sure, the Internet technically has been around at least since the birth of the Defense Department’s ARPNET in 1969, but Marshall notes that email didn’t arrive until 1971 and would not take off until 1977, the year I graduated from high school and the same year the Internet became a reality. Still, it would be another 10 years before the Internet would be commercialized.

Just as a tongue-in-cheek aside: The Internet was becoming an information superhighway long before Al Gore said he “took the initiative in creating the Internet.” Snopes.com makes a very good point in that regard: Gore never claimed to invent the Internet; he claimed credit for taking “the initiative in creating” it. During that interview, for which he was widely lampooned by his Republican critics, Gore was discussing his efforts as a congressman to foster the development of the Internet. I’m not a Gore fan, but the truth should be acknowledged openly. Still, politicians – whether Democrat or Republican – are politicians. If you want to find out if they’re lying, watch to see if their lips are moving.

Back to the point: The times, as Bob Dylan wrote, they are a changing. Just looking back over my career bears witness to that. Change, unfortunately, often is accompanied by pain. My experience a little more than six months ago, which led me to start this blog, attests to that, as do the experiences of the myriad workers in recent years who have found themselves suddenly without work – not because they made some grievous error or played office politics badly, but just because the economy went south for a season.

In the newspaper industry, the pain has been particularly tortuous. It began with the end of World War II, which marked the start of a long, steady decline in readership. The advent of the Internet, particularly its growth in the mid-1990s and its acquisition of traditional newspaper advertising revenue, was next. Finally, there came the recession in 2001 and The Great Recession of 2008.

Some describe the technological advances sparked by the Internet as a sea change or a paradigm shift, and so it is for the newspaper industry. Like a tsunami, such radical changes leave victims in their wake.

I started writing tonight on a lark – I was wondering if the newspaper at which I started had a website these days. It does (or why would I have set a link to it), and I emailed the editor there just to say howdy and I missed the place – and the people there.

In between, I learned something of the history of the Internet and, as I wrote this post, perhaps came to appreciate more fully some insights I have had about myself in recent years.

I left Rawlins in 1990 for a job in Cheyenne. During the four years I worked there, we lived an hour’s drive away in Fort Collins, Colo., a pretty town I did not particularly care for except for the presence of some very special people. From there, I eventually dragged my family across two states to my hometown.

Each of those moves caused its share of heartache and discomfort. Over the years, I have come to realize that what I had always considered a strength in myself – my ability to say goodbye and walk away, rarely looking back – actually is one of my more regrettable faults.

Perhaps it is simply the introspection that comes with middle age: looking back and wondering if I “should-a, could-a would-a” made different choices or kept in contact with more people from my past, then perhaps things would be markedly different today.

Likely, they would – some of the pain and trouble caused by my choices would not exist. Of course it’s just as likely that there would have been other pains, other troubles as a result of other choices. But because I cannot go back and change those things, I’ll never know.

Perhaps that’s a good thing.