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How we covered Annapolis back in the Jetson age

January 07, 2007|by TERRY HEADLEE

Seventeen years ago this month, I was a young reporter making his way down to Annapolis to cover the 1990 Maryland General Assembly session.

I bring this up now because the 2007 legislative session begins Wednesday, which caused me to pause for a few moments to reflect on how things have changed during that time.

I feel like my grandpa telling folks how we used to do things back in my day. Yes, I know 17 years is not a long time, but the way we cover Annapolis now - from a technological point of view - seems like a light-year ago.

For example, several weeks before the start of the 1990 session, I drove out to the Tandy warehouse in the Washington County Business Park and forked over about $200 for a flip-screen laptop computer at Radio Shack.

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This was big deal back then because as one colleague put it, it was like owning a George Jetson, high-tech piece of equipment. (Note to readers: That last sentence only will be funny to anyone born prior to 1960.)

I purchased my own computer because I didn't want to use our newsroom's portable computer (called a portabubble) that resembled a heavy box with a tiny - and I do mean tiny - black and white screen. Besides, I could view 16 lines at the same time - this was a big deal compared to other Tandy laptops for sale then that only let you view nine lines at once.

Stories were transmitted using the telephone. You had to call a phone number and then at a precise moment, you had to jam the receiver into a device that we called a "coupler'' that magically would transmit our stories over a phone line that we called "commlink."

If you jammed the phone in too early or too late, you had to start over again. And God forbid if you bumped the coupler while transmitting.

Of course, if another reporter working out of one of our other bureaus decided to transmit a story at the same time, well, then you just had to wait and try again. There was only one phone line to transmit stories - this is before digital fiber optics was everywhere.

I still have this computer in my attic thinking some day it's going to fetch a small fortune - maybe five bucks - on eBay.

We couldn't e-mail our stories back in my days because that word didn't even exist. There was no World Wide Web, so we couldn't research anything from a computer or look up background material from an electronic archive system.

No, back then you had to get up out of a chair and research the clip files for stories that had been carefully cut out of the newspaper with a pair of scissors and dated.

Since I had no archive system in Annapolis, I had to wait for the U.S. Postal Service to deliver via mail the Hagerstown newspaper. It was usually three to four days later, and sometimes I'd get a week's worth at once.

I couldn't archive the stories on my George Jetson laptop computer because it only had 300 inches of storage space. To put that in perspective, that was only enough text to cover two and half pages of a newspaper. If I had any more than that at any one time in my computer's memory, it would lock up until I deleted a large chunk of text. I'm dead serious.

There was one computer in the basement hallway in Annapolis, and you sometimes had to stand in line to use it. You couldn't call up the bill and print it out because the computer only told you the bill number - it didn't actually give you the contents of the bill. For that, you had to walk to another building, get in line again, fill out a request card and then wait until a clerk pulled you a copy out of a box. That took maybe 15 to 20 minutes.

Today, we can research and print a copy of the bill out from our desktop or laptop computers anywhere and at anytime in a minute or so.

There also were no cell phones back in my days, which meant I had to make the trek back to the statehouse pressroom to check my answering machine several times a day. That was just in case my editor was wondering what I was doing, and what stories I would be filing that day.

I'm not sure when The Herald-Mail got a fax machine, but I don't remember sending or receiving any faxes either.

Well, enough of the whining.

The good news is that our statehouse reporter this year, Andrew Schotz, will be able to research, write and transmit stories more quickly. The computers are faster and can store more information, and archives and background information can be researched more quickly. There also is e-mail, the Web and cell phones.

Covering Annapolis is a tough job, but an important one for readers.

That's why we dedicate resources to staffing it full time. During the next 13 weeks, we'll provide you with plenty of stories on these pages that will inform, educate and yes, some stories probably will infuriate you.

The days will be long and it's hard work. But for some of us who used to do it in my days, it still will seem a little like paradise.

Terry Headlee is the executive editor of The Herald-Mail. He may be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 7594, or by e-mail at terryh@herald-mail.com.

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