Elizabeth Cook: News business is all about change

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Salisbury Evening Post and the Salisbury Sunday Post were one and the same, printed and owned by the same company. At some point in the paper’s 100-plus years — I think it was the 1980s —  someone realized “Salisbury Post” was enough.

Color was slow to come to the paper’s pages. In the 1970s and ’80s it was an involved process. Before stories were ready and headlines were written, an editor would have to decide exactly where the one color photo of the day would be placed on the page. If you realized later that the position needed to move slightly, too bad. Design around it.

The permanence of that spot was worse yet for the reporter who, as deadline approached, began to squirm because sources for the story related to the color photo hadn’t called back yet. That happened once or twice during the period when Pepsi was using the slogan, “Gotta have it.”

A particular reporter would approach our associate publisher and layout guru of the time, Jason Lesley, and tell him the story was not going to be ready to go that day. Oh, no you don’t, Jason would say. The color is on the page. That’s a Pepsi story. Gotta have it.

The story miraculously came together at the last minute.

That was when the Post was an afternoon paper, hitting the streets in time for the courthouse crowd to read the paper over lunch, if they wanted. Carriers delivered in the afternoon so people could read the paper when they got home from work or other daily tasks.

Sounds kind of leisurely, doesn’t it? The afternoon deadline was anything but for the newsroom. We came in around 8 a.m. and worked furiously to write stories, lay out pages and have the paper ready to print in just a few hours. That was true deadline pressure. A good bit of the work could be done the afternoon before, but there was always a late night meeting to report, and often breaking news in the morning. That’s when reporter Mark Wineka coined his mantra, “We’re gonna be late!”

Laying out the paper under those conditions was like riding a fast-moving train that threatened to hurdle off the tracks. We called the paper the daily miracle.

We were still an afternoon paper when someone alerted us on Sept. 11, 2001, that someone had flown a jet into one of the Twin Towers in New York. That news broke just after 9 in the morning; a noon deadline was impossible. We put out the paper an hour or two late and  turned around a rare extra edition later in the day — the only one in the past 40 years — because news was happening so fast. The world was forever changed.

Technology had wrought major changes to newspaper production by then. Placing and printing color photos no longer took an act of Congress. The Post added an additional press unit and expanded its color capability. And gone was the practice of printing long strips of text that literally had to be cut and pasted — with hot wax — onto a page. All that could be done on a computer screen through the magic of pagination.

Then-Publisher Jimmy Hurley resisted pagination. He said editors would end up spending hours doing work that others could do in the composing room. He was right. The composing staff gradually disappeared.

We were just beginning to learn about the internet when the Hurleys sold the paper to Evening Post Publishing in Charleston, S.C., in 1997. Several years later the Post became a morning paper, produced at night so readers could get it at the beginning of the day. Deadline became less of an issue when it rolled around at midnight. Not much goes on then.

Wineka still pipes up now and then in the middle of the day,  “We’re going to be late!”

The pace of change for newspapers has accelerated, with the internet giving us the ability to report breaking news throughout the day and readers gravitating toward websites and social media. The paper changed hands again a few years ago and it became part of Boone Newspapers.

Now the Post has adopted a five-day publishing schedule, with no paper printed on Saturday and Monday. We still report news and post it online seven days a week, so reporters’ schedules remain the same. But we understand what a big adjustment this is for print readers, especially if you’ve been a loyal subscriber for decades. People who have not needed or cannot get internet access at home may feel left out.

Time and the realities of today’s business environment march on.

The printed Salisbury Post and the online Salisbury Post are one and the same in most ways. Online, though, the news is unlimited by space, time or newsprint prices. We can post videos and slideshows and more. As much as many of us like to hold the paper in our hands seven days a week, we know change is the path toward the future.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.