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The Times, they have a-changed

Published May 29, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - It was on Memorial Day 50 years ago that a small band of collegiate "summer trainees" reported in bright-eyed awe for our first day at the St. Petersburg Times. The others are long gone.

The first version of that lead read ". . .for their first day." An old habit. Back then, a cub reporter's permitted vocabulary did not include first-person pronouns or possessives. The first-person voice still feels awkward even though I left news for the opinion pages - joining the Dark Side, as the news side might say - 26 years ago.

Journalism is a famously nomadic profession. So why am I still here? Largely because there are few places better. I left once for a television assignment, but was happy to be asked back 18 months later.

This truly is Florida's best newspaper, and one of the nation's best as well. That's thanks to Nelson Poynter's vision that a newspaper should be responsible to its community, not to a remote owner or, worse, to Wall Street. That legacy is what made it possible for the Times, unlike most of the Florida press, to acknowledge that tax reform was not just for others. I was proud to recommend and write the editorial saying that if services were taxed, as they should be, advertising needed to be included. I was even prouder of the Times for printing it. Regrettably, the reform did not last.

That was long after my summer trainee days, which nearly became my last. A traditional cub reporter's chore was to write obituaries. There is no better way to learn that even small mistakes matter. But my first one wasn't small.

The deceased was the mother-in-law of the city's most prominent banker. Her money had staked him to the bank, and so her death was a major story. In passing, I referred to the banker as a vice president. In fact, he was the chairman of the board. There is quite a difference.

I do not remember how that happened or how it got by the copy editors. Even the proofreaders ought to have caught that one.

I came to work to hear that Tom C. Harris, the editor who had hired me, was probably going to fire me when he returned from lunch.

Instead, I found him laughing.

He had spent a miserable lunch being razzed by the editor of our local competition, the Evening Independent.

Back in the office, he picked up the Independent's early edition to read that their obituary writer had copied my article, including the mistake. I can only imagine the telephone call that ensued.

"Let that be a lesson to you," Harris told me. "The one sure firing offense here is to repeat some other newspaper's mistake."

I never found out what happened to the Independent's obit writer.

The Independent is gone too. So is the Clearwater Sun, where I earned my first paycheck as a high school correspondent writing for 15 cents a column inch, hardly the way to learn to write short. The Tampa Times is gone also. Where there were once five dailies, there are now just us and the Tampa Tribune. We may be better newspapers, but something that was invaluable has been lost that neither broadcast media nor the Internet can replace.

Stories were written by typewriter on copy paper, edited by pencil, copied by Lineotype operators who set our words in lead, put into page forms by composing room workers who read type upside down and backward, and rolled into mats which were used to cast lead plates that went on the presses. This took so long that deadlines were much earlier.

There were a lot of opportunities for mistakes - some of which were made in the course of correcting others - but there was also plenty of time to make sure the story was right before it got into print. It was not unheard of for a chisel to be taken to something already on the press.

Today's journalism is electronic. No pencil will touch this column and no one will retype it. But I worry that we have lost a few pairs of eyes in the process.

Real-time news is a worrisome problem on television and the Internet, where the race to be first that was once measured in days or hours comes down to minutes or even seconds. It may be first, but it is less likely to be right. It is more likely to dramatize violent incidents, such as last week's school bus tussle, far out of proportion to their significance. It becomes propaganda, not news.

News is still the "first rough draft of history," as Philip Graham of the Washington Post termed it. We in the print media do not always get it right, but most of us try to get it right as soon as we can. I hope the other media are trying too.

Martin Dyckman's e-mail address is

[Last modified May 27, 2005, 23:33:03]

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