Posted by: furmanbisher | November 10, 2008

When Black Ribbons Were Red Hot

It was homecoming day in Chapel Hill last weekend, and taking advantage of such a mellow event, the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication was having a homecoming of its own. Any and all who had studied for a career in any form of communication at Carolina were invited back. That included me, age notwithstanding, and since Georgia Tech had been the chosen football guest, it seemed rather appropriate that I take advantage of the coincidence.

Now, most people are not interested at all in journalism, and how newspapers are flung together. And especially now, since the daily paper is losing its old familiar place at the morning breakfast table. Get online. In fact, you don’t have to buy the paper anymore, you simply flip a switch and the world flows in front of your eyes. It’s not easy to break old habits, though. Tough to take a computer to the bathroom with you, which is where many of us have been accustomed to absorbing the news over the years.

I hadn’t been inside a college journalism department since Truman was president, I’d guess. We’re all familiar with the famous headlong headline in a Chicago paper, “Dewey Defeats Truman,” or nearly all who were alive at the time. Well, Dewey didn’t . Truman defeated Dewey, and so much for that. In this time such an error could have been corrected in a split second, or two. Today, speed is everything. In that era, time was everything. Get the paper out. Today, corrections can be made at the very time you’re reading it on your screen.

Back when, our journalism department consisted of three long tables loaded with typewriters. We came in and our prof had an assignment for us. Sometimes we went to police court, or council meeting, or our wheezing old prof barked out an imaginary theme and told us to make a news story. And he did wheeze, for dear old Skipper Coffin smoked cigarettes at such a pace that the butts he tossed on the cork floor created some curious formations. He had come to Chapel Hill as a country boy named Oscar from Randolph County. I was country, too, and not one of his star students, but he was kindly toward me because he realized we had both slopped hogs in our youth.

Oh, well, things were good. He helped me get jobs and I moved on. The department has moved onward and outward to the point that there isn’t a typewriter in Carroll Hall, the J-building. No ribbons to change. Nobody makes typewriter ribbons any more. Every room is equipped with a forest of what you and I would call television screens. Everybody has one, and the world at his and her fingertips. I felt like a hog in Tiffany’s.

I probably would enjoy it, especially if I knew no better. But these chaps will never know the joy of whipping a red-hot story out of his typewriter and crying urgently, “Copy!” And a lad appearing as if by magic, whisking it off to the composing room. That was living. That was the ultimate. That was journalism.


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