Evolving technology made life easier for Capitol reporters

Changing from being Telephone Tillie to being a computer wonk didn’t happen in one easy lesson.

The move, which occurred over my 15 years covering the Colorado Legislature, was often frustrating and maddening. But it covered a span of years in which long-distance news coverage was revolutionized.

Four pounds? I am told that’s the weight of the Mac computer Daily Sentinel reporters currently carry on their out-of-office assignments.

Remembering the behemoths I used to lug around in the 1970s and into the 1980s, I admit to being overcome with jealousy, along with remembered stabs of back pain.

When I first covered the Colorado Legislature in 1969, all of my reporting was done by mail or telephone to the city desk. I used to call The Daily Sentinel each morning and suppress a mad urge to say to the telephone operator in my best Humphrey Bogart imitation: “Hello Sweetheart, get me rewrite.”

It sometimes was a real accomplishment just to grab onto a telephone from the banks outside the Colorado Senate and House chambers, because they were usually occupied by lobbyists. I assumed that they were calling for instructions from the companies they represented, but they could have been just calling their wives for the grocery list or their girlfriends for dates.

Two years later, the Sentinel opted for a fax machine and a private telephone in the third-floor Capitol pressroom. By then, I had established myself in the press corps, and the other reporters found a desk for my machine.

The fax didn’t resemble the compact lightweight versions of today, but was roughly the size of a single-drawer filing cabinet and so heavy I couldn’t lift it. Fortunately, the company from which we had leased it moved it to the pressroom for me.

There were lots of problems with that early-day fax. It could be set for regular-size or legal-size paper, but both the sender and the receiver had to have the same setting. Sen. Gary Hart’s Washington office, which sent several communiqu&233;s a week to the Grand Junction office, often sent the legal size. If the Grand Junction end wasn’t in agreement, the copy was unreadable. So, Grand Junction would convert the fax to the legal size for Hart’s copy and, when I sent my story a short time later using the regular size, it was unusable and had to be resent. Each morning when I sent copy it was a new adventure.

Our next improvement was a sort of portable teletypesetter, which I could lug around, using a wheeled suitcase rack. The machine could be connected to the telephone, and the story went over the wire much as e-mail does today. The problem with that machine was that it was like an old-fashioned typewriter. When you made a mistake, you had to correct it character by character and line by line or rewrite the entire paragraph. I can remember sitting in my hotel room at 3 a.m. one morning trying to figure out how I could rework a couple of sentences so that I didn’t have to re-do the whole lengthy paragraph.

By 1984, we had an improved version of that machine, and it was a real pleasure to handle. If you made a mistake, you simply deleted it and rewrote it. But it still had a glitch. If I wanted to send a story I had to be sure there was an electrical outlet. Thus, when I took the machine to Denver’s downtown convention center, my first move was to look for an outlet next to a telephone. I had a special telephone staked out that I used for several conventions there.

That’s why it was such a joy in 1985, the year of Radio Shack’s TRS 80, Model 100 (or Trash-80 as everybody called it). It had an electrical connection but could also be battery-operated. It was the first portable computer cheap enough that the average reporter could afford one. It cost about $700, as I remember.

The TRS-80 weighed less than five pounds, but it needed two huge “ears” — one for the phone and one for the computer — and was usually carried in a case. But it was still more mobile than earlier “portable” computers.  The technology was so new then that when I sat in the Denver airport or on a plane putting together a story, I always drew curious stares and questions.

Now, as I sit at my desk computer, write a story, send it, and am amazed and annoyed if it doesn’t go right to its destination, I remember the old days and am grateful that technology has improved so much.

Mary Louise Giblin Henderson is a former political reporter for The Daily Sentinel. She now lives in California.


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