June 25, 2018
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What have I seen in three decades of journalism?

Kevin Bennett | BDN
Kevin Bennett | BDN
Julia Bayly
By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff

FORT KENT, Maine — John Lennon definitely said it best when he observed, “Life is what happens when you are making other plans.”

And wow, is it ever amazing how fast that life can happen when you are not looking.

That fact smacked me in the face this week when I found myself addressing groups of Aroostook County high school students as part of the University of Maine at Presque Isle career day.

After asking me to speak on the wonders of a future career in journalism, event organizers suggested I start off describing when I began as a journalist and how long I’ve been at it.

Easy peasy, I thought, jotting down notes on my 20 years as a reporter. Then I stopped and realized that I’ve been telling people I’ve worked in print media for 20 years for several years now.

So, I did some math and imagine my surprise to discover I’ve been covering northern Maine and beyond in one way or another for — gulp — 27 years.

Where in heck did that time go?

How on earth have I managed to spend almost double the years these students have been alive in my chosen career?

Simple — I absolutely love being a journalist and just can’t imagine doing anything else. Which is interesting, given it was never on my childhood list of what I wanted to be when I grew up.

The years after graduating from high school out in Portland, Ore., were for academic exploration and led me to northern Maine and five years at the University of Maine at Fort Kent pursuing a pretty broad-based liberal arts degree with multiple minors ranging from English to biology.

Diploma in hand, I still really had no idea what I wanted to be now that I was allegedly “grown up.”

But while in college, I had discovered photography and that passion and skill opened the door to a job at a local weekly.

At that time, I had never written a single news story, not even for a school publication. But from the moment I placed my first phone call on a story about a high school vocational program, I was hooked.

Now, close to three decades later, I suspect if you were to cut me open, I’d bleed ink.

And talk about a field that has changed dramatically in that time.

My first “computer” at that local weekly was little more than a giant typewriter keyboard with a tiny computer screen attached. Forget about spell check or moving blocks of text; we could type and that was about it.

Remember floppy disks? That’s what our stories were stored on and then printed out of a giant, humming machine called the “Compugraphic.”

From there, the columns of printed paper were trimmed to fit on newspaper templates where they were stuck on after being treated with a special adhesive wax.

Needed to make a correction after slapping it on that template?

More often than not, rather than reprint the story, we would use a razor blade to cut out the offending or misplaced word and replace it — using clear tape — with a correct version of that word cut out from the previous week’s printed material.

Several other steps involving large cameras and a printing press the size of a small plane later, a finished newspaper was in our hands.

This cumbersome process changed when we got our first computers capable of communicating with each other.

Now stories could be written — and spell checked — and delivered electronically for on-screen layout before the final printing process.

This did not mean, however, that there was still not plenty of room for errors.

Probably my most notable came the day when, under pressure of looming deadlines, I was told to rewrite a simple headline because the original, “Local beauticians support breast cancer awareness month” was too long.

Do not ask me why, maybe I was distracted by something shiny, but for whatever reason, the word “cancer” was removed, leaving local beauticians supporting “breast awareness month” in the next day’s paper.

Of course we had all heard about this thing called “the Internet” and “World Wide Web,” but never really thought it would move beyond NASA or graduate school programs.

Now I can’t imagine doing my job without it.

All the information any reporter could possibly need, at our fingertips and available in the blink of an eye.

Which means we are able to get news out to the general public just as fast as we gather it.

Breaking news stories that used to take 24 hours to turn around now are online within minutes.

Continued evolution of digital still and video photography means no more long hours in a dark room holding my breath wondering, “Did I get that shot?”

Today, all I need do is snap the photo and immediately check the on-camera screen to make sure it turned out.

With wireless Internet, those images and information can be on my editor’s computer moments later.

Not to say there are not challenges.

This past week saw me in Washburn covering a rather significant news event involving a police standoff.

Within a couple of hours after the incident’s peaceful conclusion, I had photos and the story — written in my vehicle on my laptop — ready to send to my editor.

There was just one small problem.

There was no available public wireless Internet access in Washburn.

This I know because, while there was no shortage of friendly, helpful people in the community, none of them had wireless. This included the town office, the public library, the local store and the high school.

Eventually, I found myself at the McDonald’s in Caribou which had all kinds of Wi-Fi for public use.

In the 45 minutes it took me to drive home, that story had been edited and posted on the Bangor Daily News website.

Compared to the pace of news publication 27 years ago, to me that seems like lightspeed.

I can’t even begin to imagine what the next 27 years will bring.

I just hope I’m around to report on it.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer who writes part time for Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at jbayly@bangordailynews.com.

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