As we close the books on another year it’s the time when many people look ahead with optimism and joy.
Which of course means that I will spend a little time looking back — 26 years ago, to be precise, to explain the photo that accompanies this column. The photo is from a book called “La Crosse in Light and Shadow,” a historical photo compilation published in 1992 by Edwin Hill and Douglas Connell.
The photo has made some social media rounds but has certainly not gone viral. The only viral connection to that photo might be the poor soul, laid up by illness with nothing better to do than to endlessly troll the internet, who stumbled upon it.
The photo shows a handsome young reporter typing at a computer in the La Crosse Tribune newsroom in 1991. The bespectacled scribe is intently staring at his screen composing an award-winning story.
That’s what I see anyway. Others see a younger version of this old ink-stained wretch who had big hair and a big tie. I’m pretty sure I still have that tie, but the hair has thinned and grayed considerably. Even though I worked a 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift as a night reporter back then, ties were still pretty standard apparel in the newsroom.
The photo was paired with one from 1915, which showed a far different newsroom. And I was only a copy boy back then.
I’ve had a few people comment on the technology featured in the photo. In the summer of 1991, the newspaper invested in its first stand-alone word processor, which used the 286 computer processor. It replaced an older system that still relied on a mainframe. The photo was taken during the transition as you can still see the keyboard to the other system resting against a shelf in the background.
We thought it was wonderful new technology. It was — compared to what it replaced — but in truth the 286 had been on the market since 1982 and by 1991 both 386 and 486 processors were already on the market.
The 386 was twice as fast as the 286, which had 134,000 transistors compared with 275,000. And the 486 had 1.2 million transistors. By 1993, the Pentium chip came out, and it had 3.21 million transistors. I’m pretty sure we kept using the 286 models until the mid-1990s.
But it was a true computer, and it came with spell check and a dictionary that could be custom programmed. That was dangerous, as we once pranked another reporter by making his computer type the word “scumbucket” every time he typed the name of a prominent local politician. We quickly fixed his computer after the astonished reporter kept typing the name over and over.
I also used that computer to perform my first online research. After consulting with Al Gore, I used a 300 baud modem and hooked up with a listserve to download some data that I used in a story. This was before the web browser were invented.
Baud refers to the number of signaling elements that occur each second and is named after J.M.E. Baudot, who invented the Baudot telegraph code. Having worked on the telegraph system before I came to the Tribune in 1915, I was familiar with the process. (I know, that was a baud joke.)
Without getting too technical, let’s just say that 300 bits per second is glacial. The 3 megabits per second internet connection I have at home — which is slow by today’s standards — transmits at 3 million bits per second.
Although it’s hard to see in the photo, I had an Associated Press Stylebook and a Webster’s Dictionary on my desk as well. Unlike today’s texters and Twitterers, we cared about things like accuracy and spelling. No covfefe allowed.
There was no such thing as email, although we had a newfangled device called a fax machine. Interviews were done using a desktop communication device operated by series of push buttons called a telephone. Better yet, we actually met lots of people face to face.
Yes, the technology has changed. But the impact of a journalist’s work — telling stories that make a difference — remains the same today and hopefully into the future.
Just like that old tie.