Newsrooms, if you’ve never been in one, are a lot different now than they were, say, 40 or 50 years ago.
Today, when our phones ring, they sound like cheap, imitation parakeets, and people type on computer keyboards, producing a sound that resembles a three-pound Chihuahua walking on a wood floor.
Forty or 50 years ago, reporters and editors made a racket hammering away on heavy Underwood or Remington typewriters, and the telephones rang like fire alarms.
Every newsroom had at least one teletype machine, an ugly brown electric typewriter about four feet high, resembling a downsized mailbox. It made a nonstop clatter, typing 240 letters per minute, hammering out news on cheap paper fed from large rolls hanging on a spindle inside the machine.
Day in and day out it typed, whether anyone was in the newsroom or not. It was always an editor’s job, upon arriving for work, to take the 40- or 50-foot scroll of stories and, using what was called a pica stick, rip the wire, or tear off all the individual stories and pieces of stories and put them in order to be sent to typesetters.
And at the end of the day, all those pieces of paper, the first take on the world that day, would be thrown away.
As the machine typed, bells would ring. Whether a story got one, two three or four bells indicated how important it was. Five bells was a bulletin, and a rare flash got 10 bells and sent everyone running to the teletype to see what had happened.
There are no bells any more, or clatter, and no more paper. News comes in silently to computers, fed by satellite feeds.
But on Wednesday morning, a woman walked into the newsroom with a little box of history: reams and reams of what you could call history from 50 years ago tomorrow.
The box contained the paper, the teletype newswire from part of the day that President John F. Kennedy was shot, and more stories from the days that followed.
Caroline Zimmerman found the box in a bookstore in Antwerp, Ohio, sometime in 1984. She paid $20 for it.
The little hoard of history didn’t contain some of the original wire alerts, the news flashes reporting the president had been shot, the reports he had died, and so on.
It appears only two or three such collections of the original teletype exist.
But there are stories in Zimmerman’s collection that date from late on the day of the assassination and from the next morning, telling of Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as president; the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald; snippets of information about how he had also been charged with killing a Dallas police officer; and news on the condition of Texas Gov. John Connally.
There are also stories of Kennedy’s body leaving Dallas for Washington, and an early report that his body would probably be buried in Brookline, Mass.
Zimmerman has had the reams of teletype reviewed by a representative from the PBS program Antiques Roadshow, who she says declared them authentic.
She has also had museums ask her to donate the teletypes, which she has declined to do.
What Zimmerman wonders is just how much this little piece of history is worth.
It’s not clear, since it doesn’t contain all of that day’s news releases.
What is clear is that what Zimmerman retrieved in that little book shop is a piece of history unlike anything that will ever be produced again.