This summer, a group of students, an adviser, and working journalists gathered at Florida Atlantic University with typewriters, photographic enlargers, rubber cement, Xacto knives and other implements of production to put together a newspaper. Without computers.
You can read most of the sordid details about the experiment (called “All on Paper”) at Michael Koretzky’s weblog. He recounts how they tried to figure out how to turn a bathroom into a darkroom (remember those?), and what it was like to push the buttons on a manual typewriter.
So why are we talking about this experiment on a weblog called “Innovation in College Media”? Because of the thing the students say they found through the experience that was missing from their 21st century newsroom.
Gideon Grudo and Mariam Aldhahi – editors with the FAU newspaper – were part of this experiment in cruel and unusual punishment, and came away with an appreciation for the difficulties of putting out a newspaper in a pre-computerized world.
Here are some excerpts from an interview I conducted with them recently:
What was the biggest lesson you learned from the experience?
Gideon: No Internet means more talking. More laughing. More camaraderie and community in the newsroom. I hope that Google and InDesign don’t make us forget what we had with each other for those brief two weeks.
Mariam: We take the both the technology we have and the people we work with for granted. This project helped us to create a better functioning newsroom.
Would you do it again?
Gideon: For my own good, it’d take a hurricane to force me to schlep the typewriter back to the newsroom and pop it open. But I do hope to show others the little that I know of the process and help other newsroom recreate our project.
Mariam: No chance. I figure if the people who grew up using that technology don’t want to touch it than I shouldn’t either. I would be more than happy to teach others, though. This project is definitely one that should be recreated.
Have you gotten any requests from other advisers to do the same thing on their campuses?
Gideon: We have, and some from high schools.
How long did the process take to produce the issue?
Two weeks, daily.
What would you do differently if you could do it again? Anything?
Gideon: Buy a linotype.
Mariam: Buy a recycling bin. The amount of paper wasted still makes me feel guilty.
What was your favorite piece of old school equipment?
Gideon: Pica pole paired with an X-Acto knife. Designing was so barbaric and personal.
Mariam: X-Acto knife and rubber cement.
What was your least favorite?
Gideon: The typewriter. While it was fun to set it up and press down the keys, having to retype five or six versions of one story got old fast.
Mariam: Proportion wheel. I still don’t know how it works.
A lot of talk was about camaraderie. Do you think you can replicate that without the old equipment?
Gideon: I sure hope so. We’ve already seen a spike in staffer attendance since the end of the project. The newsroom is more full on the daily (we’re a weekly, mind you) than I’ve ever seen it. And it’s still summer!
Mariam: I’ve already seen a change in the newsroom. We have a good chunk of the staff here at given time and work feels less like work now.
Grudo, Aldhahi and Koretzky all mentioned the sense of camaraderie, of shared purpose, of unity the newsroom experienced while putting together a paper the “old fashioned” way. And the effect seems to have carried over since the experiment.
But the big question is: how long will that camaraderie last? Certainly, the student journalists who personally went through the experience will remember it. But what about the next group of journos who come into the newsroom? Will they catch the “shared purpose” from their peers? Will they need a similar exercise before they catch the feeling.
In some ways, the paper-only experience is similar to those “team-building” exercises that occur in many large organizations. Except, instead of catching a co-worker while she falls backwards, or sharing the experience of walking a ropes course, the students ended the two weeks with a finished product.
I admit I was skeptical of the exercise from the beginning. My new media/get off my lawn hat was on tight. But I do see a deeper desire that surfaces from this type exercise.
We’re all more wrapped in personal bubbles these days. We wear our headphones connected to our iPods with our personal playlists. We download photos and edit them in Photoshop, not in a community darkroom. We don’t spend time in front of giant pasteout desks or futz around with hot wax. And in the midst of our personal reveries, the communal sense of journalism gets subsumed.
You can’t reproduce that sense of coming together to do something important with a Facebook meeting, or a Google+ “hangout.” A weekly meeting or shouting to your coworker over a computer screen won’t do it either.
And honestly, I don’t think any of us would trade the benefits of our technology just for the return of some ideal of “community.” But perhaps there are ways to restore some of that community to the newsroom without having to resort to manual typewriters.
Maybe it means making everyone unplug their headphones, or copy edit pages as a group, or pass around photos and discuss the best crops on deadline.
I admit I don’t have any easy answers for this question. Perhaps you could add to the conversation in the comments.
Oh, and by the way, if you’re interested, you can contact Koretzky at the link above about bringing the experiment to your own campus.