NEWS FROM THE WOODS
By Bob Ketchum
Originally Published August 23, 2013
The irony of life is when some opportunity comes along that ends up changing your life.
The year was 1981. I had moved back home to Mountain Home from a stint in radio broadcasting in Ft. Smith. I was struggling with my fledgling recording studio, realizing that I had not thought my master plan through, and that maybe trying to run a recording studio in the middle of the Ozark woods wasn't perhaps my best idea to date.
It was a hot afternoon in June when I invited my friends Rusty and Neal Fraser out on the pontoon boat. During the course of the afternoon we alternated between cooling off in the lake and sitting in the sun talking about common interests. Rusty confided in me that he had ulterior motives in accepting my lake invitation. You see, Rusty was the publisher of the Baxter Bulletin, and it seems the local newspaper had been assimilated by the Borg (bought out by a huge newspaper corporation). The corporate giant was revamping their holdings, and the Bulletin was sorely in need of switching over from the old school printing methods to computers.
Rusty told me that because I was tech-savvy he thought I'd be a candidate to take an opening at the paper for a Computer Technician. I told him that I had NO experience in computers and felt intimidated at the mere thought of trying to understand their operation. However, he waved his hand as if to clear the air and said "Don't worry about that, we'll train you". He had given it much thought and was betting that my ability at grasping technology would be an asset for the newspaper as well as create a steady job for me, which was certainly a new twist.
We discussed it for the rest of the afternoon. He told me that this job would only last for one year and then I'd be out of a job but could still qualify to receive unemployment benefits for up to a year after that. This was all so new to me, and I was a bit intimidated at the thought. Other than when I was in radio I had never worked at a job long enough where I could claim unemployment. I told him it sounded un-American to me to collect unemployment for a year after I lost the job, but he said - "Hey! Everyone does it. That's what the system is for. If they can't find you suitable employment along the lines of what you were hired for, you are eligible to collect unemployment". He told me not to even worry about that for now and just concentrate on the upcoming job at hand.
Again, I stressed that I had no experience and he replied that the company would pay for me to attend a computer training program in Florida, where I would learn all the essentials of becoming a Computer Technician. The school was run by the Harris Corporation, the largest multimedia company in the US. They manufactured broadcast equipment, transmitters, and computers designed specifically for printing newspapers. They had training programs and he would enlist me in the program along with the paper's editor, Janet Nelson. We would both be taking the same courses. She would concentrate on editorial text manipulation and I would learn how to operate, troubleshoot, and repair the computer terminals used by the staff. It sounded way too complex to me, but Rusty had such an enthusiasm and faith in my abilities that I finally gave in and made the commitment.
Janet and I flew to Florida and spent the week of July 12th at the Harris Corporation's Training Facility in Melbourne. The first two days was like culture shock to me. I was way behind the others in class because I had no prior knowledge of newspaper jargon but Janet helped me along on our off hours so I understood things like point type and style, leading, cutlines, breaklines, column inches, hairlines, mastheads, picas, tabs, and a thousand other things that sounded like a foreign language. By the end of the week I was helping her understand signal flow on a computer, which was very similar to how audio travels on its way through the various pieces of hardware. It was an eye-opener for both of us, and we were glad to have each other to consult after we returned home and proceeded to get the staff ready for the impending changeover.
When the time came, I oversaw the installation and implementation of a 12-terminal system with a whopping THREE MEGABYTES of processors housed in 3 stacked boxes, each roughly the size of a footlocker. In addition we received two Compugraphic Terminals which were used for designing and composing advertising copy. I had to single-handedly train the reporters (Sonny Garrett among them) in the proper use of a terminal, which had its own 12K internal memory. For the time it was cutting edge technology and the only thing anyone had ever worked with was a typewriter. I acquainted them with the "F" keys which could hold large amounts of type, allowing the user to cut and paste copy within a document or across multiple documents. It was very confusing for them in the beginning, and many times I had to reset the mainframe when someone hit the wrong button. Janet herself pulled a good one in the first week when she wasn't thinking and accidently hit the PRINT ALL button, sending the computer typesetter into convulsions as it printed out (on VERY expensive rolls of printing paper) the entire contents of a 3-Megabyte storage system. I couldn't stop it and it took that afternoon and the rest of the evening faithfully printing out everything in its memory banks. After the fiasco I used a red Sharpie and colored over that particular key so that would never happen again.
I learned that I didn't need to know a lot of technical stuff to be a computer technician. In those days if a terminal died, I had enough training to chase down the problem and detect which card that operation depended on. Then I simply removed the card and replaced it with a spare we kept on hand, and then sent the defective card back to Harris for replacement or repair. I had learned the tricks of the trade like how to remove a troublesome card and apply a little elbow grease with a pencil eraser across the terminal strip. This fixed the problem 50% of the time as the copper connections were temperamental and just needed a little cleaning. I had my own little cubicle in the building, where the two huge computer typesetters and Central Processing Units were located. The room was closed off and had its own air filtration and conditioning system. I had a desk in there and my own terminal so I could access any part of the entire system from my desk. I could check and see what any one terminal was involved in and could move large blocks of text from one terminal to another. Over the course of the day the other eleven terminals would be feeding copy to my station and I proof read copy before sending it on to the printers. I usually used one printer for news and one printer for ad copy just to keep track of it all. As the film developed and exited the typesetter I would take it and distribute it in the other room to the copy setters who cut and arranged the copy into pages to be printed by the pressmen in the big warehouse where the giant press machines were kept. On press day Janet spent most of her time overseeing the final pages before committing them to the press crew for the printing. Once it got there it was no going back unless it was deemed an emergency or something so awful that it was worth the expense of wasted paper and ink.
Several months after we had all settled in at the paper Rusty called Janet and I into his office to tell us that the corporate office was sending down a hatchet man who would be there to watchdog the operation and report if money was being wasted or if we had any dead wood that could be cut from the budget. When he said "dead wood" he looked directly at me and I gulped. I had been there about six months and was all settled into my job. In fact, I had streamlined the operation so much that I was putting myself out of a job. The news department and the ad staff had learned the ins and outs of their respective terminals. In another month or two the operation would be running smoothly enough that a computer technician wouldn't be needed at all. I already had moments when I was just sitting at my desk wearing headphones and listening to my Walkman. Rusty asked if there was anything else I could do to justify my existence at the paper. I showed him a few things I had written up in boredom. They were articles about various new strides in technology that affected everyone, like the Betamax vs. VHS war that was heating up and the introduction of home satellite technology. He loved the articles and told me to find a name for my new column. I called it "System Update" and asked Mark Cheney to come up with a suitable logo. He created this super cool robot-like guy wearing a printer's cap and sitting at a computer terminal with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. We introduced the feature on April 2, 1982. The column was well established by the time the company man had arrived in mid-July. It would buy me some time but we knew eventually that the column itself would not justify my salary.
Upon his arrival and introduction to the staff, it didn't take long for the hatchet man to discover that my duties as computer technician were dwindling as employees learned the ins and outs of the computer system. He had figured out that he could eliminate my job once he knew how I replaced defective boards with good ones. He didn't think much of my System Update column and figured if the paper dropped it there would be no big loss. While he was figuring all this out I started spending great amounts of time in the darkroom, partly to get away from his buzzard-like presence. No one cared much for him and he didn't care what anyone thought, so life around the newspaper was a stalemate. It was the beginning of the end for the "hometown newspaper".
The staff photographer at that time was a fellow by the name of Norman Dean. Rusty had hired him because of his impeccable photographer's credentials. He was well-respected within the news photographer's circles as a good shooter, and had several national press awards in his resume. I wanted to learn darkroom techniques from him and he invited me into the darkroom almost on a daily basis. I learned how to "dodge" prints and how different types of filters affected images. Then we went out in the field together and he taught me the fundamentals of using black and white film with a 35mm SLR camera. He loaned me one owned by the paper and we spent many hours shooting and evaluating my shots for composition and subject matter.
In May my job ended at the Baxter Bulletin. It was almost exactly one year since Rusty had given me the job, and true to his statement, the job ended one week over a full year. But in that year I learned so many new things. I learned not to be frightened of something new, like technology. It wasn't long after that when I purchased my own computer and began integrating it into my audio/video production studio. I wasn't intimidated any more. I learned a great deal about photography and image composition, which in turn carried over into my video work, making me a better videographer. And maybe above all else, I honed my skills as a writer, which led to a job as a staff writer for a national trade magazine, writing technical articles and product reviews. Seeing my articles and stories in a glossy monthly magazine was a real boost for my writing career. To this day I still use my "System Update" logo, and I have continued writing my "News From The Woods" columns which have been published since 1987. The archives are now online through my website www.cedarcreststudio.com/woodslist