Athens Review, Athens, Texas

August 17, 2012

Working at the Houston Chronicle a learning experience

Jeff Riggs
Associated Press

Athens — A lot of journalism-inclined  people would not dare apply for a job at a metropolitan newspaper.  They have watched television shows, like the old Lou Grant series, and they think there’s a lot of late-night work, and a lot of danger as they get close to crime and fire.

Sometimes there is a lot of that.  But, they also do have those elements from time-to-time at smaller dailies and weeklies.

The metropolitan newspaper in which I once worked was the Houston Chronicle.  It was in 1968, and I was 19, and working on a BA from University of Houston.

The name of the paper was the Houston Chronicle.  That point-in-time was before the competition it realized from the Houston Post, another metrodaily in the city, ended when the Post went out of business.

Back then, the Chronicle building constructed in 1927, had its editorial department of the on the third floor of its 10 stories.  It had tile flooring on the ground floor, and a gift shop.  There was a framed  directory on the wall of the lobby, telling you which floor there was for the departments of circulation, editorial, advertising, classified and file books.  It was open 24-hours a day.

Interestingly, in a nation, which today demands strict security, especially after 9-11, at that time, there was only a guard stationed at a desk 24 hours to get you to sign the register.

There was no questions, like, “What do you want to do here?”  You just signed in and took the elevator up.

During the daytime, the Chronicle saw fit to put human elevator operators on board each of the elevators.  They sat on a foldout seat on that vehicle, and asked you what floor was it you wanted.  Then, they pressed the same buttons we press when we get on such a device today.

After going to the proper floor for editorial (or any other department), the elevator door would open.  It would reveal the life back then, as we believed was “modern.”

In the editorial department, where I was a copyboy, there were about 10 or 15 desks where reporters worked.

There was also a desk in the middle, where the managing editor sat, and yelled orders.

At each desk, there was either an IBM Selectric electric typewriter, or one of those that were used before electricity.

Computers were not used in the newsroom, or any other department at that time, but there was a room set up on another part of the floor that was used in planning the anticipated conversion.

In that big newsroom, there was also a soundproof glass room where there were teletype machines.  This room contained machines from Associated Press and United Press International, along with some other news agencies.

Part of my job was to rip the paper off those machines in the proper position, and put it in a basket on the managing editor’s desk.  He (always “he,” and not “she” at that time), would mark it up, and send it in a vacuum tube to production on another floor.

That in turn, would be typeset, laid out, and put into a form of  a page that could be photographed in preparation for making a press plate.

That is one of the biggest changes in newpaper operations today, with the advent of computers.  Whereas, it used to take 10 or more people from the beginning of the production of a newspaper, today, the person sitting at the computer does just about everything done in news production. 

The editor now usually imports the ads, lays out the editorial content around the ads, and then sends the laid-out page directly to the printer, so that “plates” can be photographed and placed on the press.

Editors do not take a pen and mark up pages, and let others set the type and lay them out anymore.

The Chronicle experience taught me a lot.  But, not nearly as much as experience with the hands-on smaller papers.

I so love to work with small dailies and weeklies.  It’s a great experience.

As for the Chronicle, I revisited  about 15 years ago, and saw the changes.

First of all, the building was completely remodeled in the 1980s.  But, the real change was in the incredible amount of security in the lobby area, and the difficulty in getting to the upper floors.  It’s an absolute madhouse of activity.

Newspapers, like everything else, has experienced change.

Jeff Riggs is the Editor of the Athens Daily Review.