ASR 33 and Citizen Journalism
It was a winter Saturday evening in a small New England College town in the mid nineteen-seventies. It could have been just about any such evening, because there was a similar pattern, a similar flow to such evenings. I was a dorky townie living up on Henderson Road looking down over the Village Beautiful.
I sang in the school choir and played in the band; not very well, but enough to get a little bit of a sense of belonging. I worked in Audio-Visual pushing carts with film strip projectors to classrooms or setting up the video camera. It was an early chance for me to get paid for playing with technology. Either that or I would work in the library around beloved books. When all the returned books were shelved for the day, I would straighten out sections where books were out of order. 811 - Poetry, American always seemed to be in good order, but 796.332 Athletic and outdoor sports and games, Ball Games, Inflated ball driven by foot, American Football, always seemed to be out of order as did 612.6 - Human Physiology - Reproduction. I would always be embarrassed spending long periods of time putting 612.6 back into order.
The evening would start off in a familiar manner. I would get dropped off at the Student Union; my base of operations for the evening. Back then, we didn't have cellphones, so the framework for the evening would be established ahead of time. I would have a dime to call home from a pay phone, if necessary. I might have some money to buy some French Fries at the Student Union or to buy pizza from one of the two local pizza shops in town. The default would be established. If I didn't call by 10:30, for example, I would get picked up at the Student Union at 11.
There was bound to be something going on. Perhaps it was a hockey game, either high school, or college at the skating rink. Maybe a classmate was having a party, or there was some college party I could find my way into. I was never invited to parties, but I always heard about them at the Student Union and would end up showing up, uninvited.
Maybe there was a party at the ABC house. ABC stood for "A Better Chance". It was a program for bringing students from poorer, mostly black under achieving city schools, to mostly well to do, white over achieving schools in the country. Mount Greylock Regional High School was one of those over achieving schools. It was supposed to be so that the kids from the under achieving schools would get a better chance at a good education, but more often than not, it was us country kids that were getting learning the most from the experiences.
Back then, we had a small black and white television set that received three channels. There were no VCRs or DVD players. You watched what was on when it was on, if your parents allowed it. For me, that meant we could watch cartoons on Saturday mornings. Later in the morning, Soul Train would come on; about the closest we ever got to seeing music videos or different cultures, unless, of course, we caught a little bit of Lawrence Welk when we visited relatives. Parties at the ABC house were wonderful. They were Soul Train come to life with great dancing that even though I was normally too embarrassed to join in, sometimes I would get drawn in.
In the basement of the Student Union was the Ratskeller, a coffee house that often had good folk music, and down the hall was the college radio station. For me, the radio station was the place to go. There was a good chance I would run into friends there, and if not, I could enjoy the music while reading the news as it came off the ASR 33 Teletype.
The ASR 33, would click clack along at about 10 characters per second with news coming off of the wires. It was a familiar comforting machine, since I had used an ASR 33 years earlier as my connection to some of the first computers I was ever on.
The old ASR 33 came to mind this morning as I drove up to a discussion sponsored by the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists about Citizen Journalists. I had a shirt on that Kim had had made for me which said, "I get my news on Twitter". Back when I got the shirt, several years ago, it raised eyebrows, especially at various "future of journalism" conferences I would attend. Now, many people are used to getting news via Twitter. I thought about how writing good tweets is a bit like writing good headlines and how a good headline editor should be a natural on Twitter. I thought about how cool it would be to get an old ASR 33 and hook it up to a computer that would feed tweets to the teletype similar to how the wire service delivered stories years ago.
The discussion took place in an old factory building that is finding new use as the newsroom for the Torrington Register Citizen. it was a good discussion which moved past the tired old discussions about untrained amateur reporters posting biased unverified information on websites they can freely set up thereby driving real journalists, those who went to J school, and sometimes get paid, out of work.
The discussion focused on legal issues anyone writing online needs to know about. It focused on how professional journalists and citizen journalists can work together to improve openness and transparency in government and public life.
The newsroom reminded me of Mass MoCA. In North Adams, MA, next to Williamstown, I had worked at Sprague Electric in the buildings that would later become Mass MoCA. In fact, it was at Sprague that I first encountered an ASR 33. Now, the old factory in North Adams is an art museum and the old factory in Torrington hosts a twenty first century newsroom. The space is wide open. People can join in on the daily story meetings, either in person, or online. There are blogging stations and microfilm readers available to the public. It is a place to gather, to find out what is going on, similar to what the college radio station with the ASR 33 was for me back in the 1970s.