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The technological challenges of a reborn journalist

I first heard the term ‘tablet’ back in 1979 during one of my initial journalism classes at Algonquin College.

Ottawa Citizen editor Russell Mills had been invited to speak to our first-year class of budding journalists and he described an apocalyptic future for the news industry; one in which printed newspapers would be replaced by electronic devices which commuters could carry under their arms on the bus or subway. Mills actually used the term ‘tablets’ – which he envisioned as about the size of a standard tabloid newspaper – designed to allow users to read any news source in the world they wished and which would replace newspapers completely by the turn of the century. Jobs in the industry were going to be scarce, Mills forecast, which was just great news for the eager journalism students seated in front of him.

This initial experience in journalism study has been in my thoughts lately during a return to the field after a 25-year period of not writing for a living. Mills may have been off on the timeline, but his vision of ‘tablets’ which would allow users to access any newspaper in the world was certainly mostly accurate. In fact, his prediction has turned out to be a lot closer to the eventual reality than any old science fiction movie I have seen. I don’t think in his wildest dreams, though, that Mills ever envisioned people would be reading and watching the news on a phone — essentially a small computer — which they could carry around in their pockets to have with them at all times.

While some have sounded the death knell for newspapers due to the revenue disruption caused by the internet, there are also benefits to journalism being provided by new technology and we’ve seen many of them come to the forefront during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Journalists are able to file their stories from home and send in photos via email, while newspapers who have been on top of the technology curve are able to publish the news and advertising on their websites or in electronic versions of their newspapers. This allows readers to keep up on local and national news on their phones, tablets or computers, while not having to run to the store to pick up a physical newspaper.

Although I have always been adept on a computer, for me, the transition to news via phone and tablet has been a slow and gradual one. My first smart phone – the cheapest one available – was purchased just a few years ago and only a few months ago did I finally update to a premium phone which can take high-quality photos and video. For the past few years, I have also owned a basic tablet which I use occasionally as an e-reader and to surf the internet. But for the most part, it sits on a shelf and I do most work on an actual laptop computer.

However, times and needs change. With my old laptop nearing the end of its lifespan and my needs turning more to writing, photography and video, I find myself using my phone capabilities much more than in the past. Recently I picked up a basic iPad to use for research, music production and video. I’m still figuring out all its capabilities and doubt I will ever do more than scratch the surface of what this amazing piece of modern technology can accomplish.

It is to this iPad that I hooked up a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse this morning and am using them to write this piece, the first I have written without sitting in front of an actual computer, or if you go way back – a typewriter. When I’m done, I will upload the file to The Review’s website and the paper’s publisher Louise Sproule will get a message that it’s there. I know I’m out of touch with modern journalistic technology, but this literally blows my mind.

I remember covering a Hawkesbury Hawks playoff game back in the early 1980s when I was still a young journalism student and writing freelance articles for The Review. It was the 7th game of the CJHL finals and was taking place on a Tuesday night in Gloucester well after the paper’s normal deadline, but the Review was holding a space for the article. After each period I would call in from a payphone in the lobby of the Earl Armstrong Arena and sum up the events, while someone on the other end typed it into the paper’s computer system. Then at the end of the game I called in with the final result (Hawks came back to win in overtime!) and dictated the lead for the article over the phone.

All of this was quite a manual process and greatly depended on one of the two payphones in the arena’s lobby being available during each intermission and at the end of the game. And with that it is true confessions time… about an hour prior to the crowds arriving, I unscrewed the earpiece of one of the pay phones, took out the receiver piece inside and put it in my pocket, then screwed the earpiece back on. That way anyone who picked up the phone would hear no dial tone and think it was out of order. When I needed to make a call, I would slip into the booth and discreetly put the receiver back together. Four times I screwed that earpiece back into the phone, chatted with the Review for 20 minutes and then took it out again and went back to watch the game. No one noticed.

Flash forward to the same situation today, where I could just type the same story into my phone while comfortably sitting in the stands and then literally mail it in after the game is over. Also the deadline of the paper would not have been so stringent because technology has eliminated the need for physical assembly of layout sheets which need to be sent to a printer. Now the layout is all done on screen and can be sent off with the click of a button. Again, mind blown. Looks like my old Long John Silver Exacto knife can stay in the drawer.

With this column now completed, I am off to upload it to The Review’s website. Then later I’ll go on the site to see if Louise has published it and to browse other local articles. After dinner I will go online and check out other newspapers around the world including one of my favorites, The Bangkok News.

Russell Mills would be amazed, but then he always was ahead of the curve and probably still is. I might have to look him up and send a link to this column so he can read it on his phone.

Reid Masson

Reid Masson is a graduate of Algonquin College's Journalism Program. He has over 20 years of experience as a staff writer and editor for various newspapers across Canada, including The Ottawa Citizen and Brockville Recorder and Times.

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