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For better or worse, one rectangular box launched a revolution

Published: Sunday, May 5 2013 11:41 p.m. MDT

To the best of my recollection the phrase “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it” — one of those clever sayings like “not so much” and “it’s not rocket science” and “no-brainer” that get overplayed more than a Beatles record — had not yet been invented when I got what I wished for.

It was a rectangular box about the size of a portable sewing machine that was the fulfillment of my dreams.

They called it a Teleram, and if you set the telephone receiver in the holes in its top it would transmit the words you’d just typed into the small green screen directly to the newspaper office, where by some miracle it would wind up printed in the newspaper. The Teleram was one of the world’s first portable personal computers.

We got our first shipment of Telerams at the Deseret News in 1982. It wasn’t long after that when I realized I could, in theory, never again have to come into the office. There were obstructions to the theory. For one thing, I had to convince my boss, sports managing editor George Ferguson, which was no slam dunk I can assure you. But the wave had started and soon enough newspapers everywhere were going to computers and reporters were catching on to the next great thing. For me, a sports writer who covered games at night and had to come into the office the next morning at 6 a.m. to file my reports — we were an evening paper then — it meant I could untether from the office and send my stories from home or the arena or wherever. It was like Thanksgiving, Christmas and my birthday all in one.

It also meant that within reason I could live where I wanted to. I chose the mountains. I moved to Jeremy Ranch, near Park City, where Arnold Palmer had just designed a golf course, bought a golf club membership, skied more days that winter than any winter in my life, before or since, and bought a new invention called a mountain bike. For an ink-stained wretch getting paid to watch ballgames, I’d found paradise.

I remember going to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles with my Teleram. They weren’t foolproof. Sometimes the phone lines conked out. Sometimes other, more mysterious things happened. So there was always an element of suspense in filing stories. One vivid and fond memory of L.A. '84 was riding in a media bus late at night after the closing ceremonies and finding myself sitting next to none other than the great Jim Murray, aka my idol, the best sports writer there ever was and ever will be. I read the Times sports guys like a disciple. I considered the transition from John Hall to Jim Murray to Scott Ostler the equivalent of Ruth to DiMaggio to Mantle.

Anyway, the great Jim Murray, even though he too had a Teleram, or its equivalent, told me he was going back to the Times office to file his column there, just to be on the safe side. “I don’t trust the machines and this time of night you always get a rewrite man who types with his thumbs,” Jim Murray said, as clever in person as he was in print.

Computers! Who needed them! He was running back to the office — the very thing I was running from. I on the other hand was ready for the future. I embraced it without question or complaint. The Teleram soon gave way to the TRS-80, appropriately and not affectionately known as the Trash80, which was lighter but actually less reliable, then we eventually got Steve Jobs and Macs and suddenly people barely a half-decade removed from dictating stories over the telephone by the hour were now complaining if the circuits overloaded and you had to try again in five minutes.

And not only could you file stories quickly, the rapid evolvement of the World Wide Web transformed your personal computer from a typewriter with a phone line into your very own personal research assistant. By the 1990s I was looking up almost everything online. If I wanted to know who was ranked No. 1 in the college football poll in, say, October of 1965, the Internet would tell me. If I wasn’t sure about the spelling of a word, Google would correct me. I tossed away my dictionaries and thesauruses and encyclopedias. By the early 2000s virtually everything was online. I remember going to the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy, where Park City’s Ted Ligety, an Olympic rookie, won a totally unexpected, by him and me, gold medal in his first race and I was on the other side of the Alps when he won it. I panicked. How would I get any details and quotes on deadline? Then I went online in the media center and found stories full of quotes and details already published in The Boston Globe, the L.A. Times and many more. I gave those papers attribution for what I poached, but they saved me. I was covering the Winter Olympics and didn’t get cold. Peter Zenger never imagined this. What a world.

But those were the good, old head-in-the-sand days. The newspaper panic began not more than a year after that. A gradual slide in circulation had begun in the ‘80s — not long after that first Teleram hit the newsroom — but no one paid much attention as every year more and more readers clued into the fact that just as I had done in Torino, you could find it all online — and online was free!

But that’s progress. I for one think newspapers will adapt and survive. Maybe newsprint won’t, and the rain forests can breathe easy, but news sources will, and no matter how many people give away their blogs online there will always be a market for skilled writers, editors, reporters, columnists, photographers and layout people. At least that’s what I think.

And sometimes I do wonder. Is the whole technology explosion worth it? Exactly who is managing whom these days? Is today better than yesterday? You can talk and text and email and look stuff up everywhere now, on anything. Everyone’s connected — and unconnected. I don’t watch TV anymore with my kids, or my wife, now that we all have smartphones. When we drive in the car, same thing. I don’t know whether to ask them to stop or join them. It’s the same at work. Half the time you start to have a conversation with someone you discover they’re wearing earphones plugged into their iPhone. In a way I suppose I’m like Jim Murray in that bus. I figure I’m about the same age now that he was in 1984 when he raced back to the office to file his story. He just didn’t trust those machines. Or maybe he was trying to hold on to the past.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: benson@deseretnews.com

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