Pearl Porath died this last week.
Many younger readers of the La Crosse Tribune probably have no idea who that is. But if you’re over the age of 50, you likely remember Pearl as the correspondent who filed stories from Black River Falls.
One of many correspondents, Pearl was one of the most dependable. She would call in late at night to the Tribune’s Recorder after sitting through a four-hour council meeting. Then whoever was working the regional desk — sometimes it was me — would clear stories left by Pearl and other correspondents.
It’s been decades since we used the Recorder and almost as long since the Tribune had a fleet of correspondents that included Pearl.
When I think of Pearl and the other correspondents, I groan and remember typing up 60 inches of Black River Falls council and school board meetings, cutting it to 40 inches, and then having the copy desk lop it to 20 inches. Those were the days when we had correspondents in every corner of the Coulee Region and we covered the area like a giant quilt.
Not so much these days. Maybe the powers that be figured it cost too much for the few subscribers who wanted to read about Prairie du Chien and Tomah and Black River Falls.
Reading Pearl’s obituary reminded me of the days when I first worked at the Tribune. In 1977, fresh out of UW-Eau Claire, I was current with the technology the Tribune was using. The paper had only recently converted from hot lead to cold type but had only one unsteady foot in the new technology.
The copy desk still had a hed sked that told copy editors who many spaces each type face took up. And if you were a lazy copy editor who didn’t want to work too hard to boil down your words to a succinct type face, you likely chose a light face in 36 point. I know because I started out on the copy desk. And still my favorite type face was Bodoni Bold.
We still banged out headlines on typewriters in 1977. And wire stories came to us on rolls of tape with punch marks which we then fed into machines which would translate them back into words. If you day dreamed while at the task, the tape would run askew and you’d end up with gibberish in your computer.
In those days, we didn’t have quite enough computers for everyone in the newsroom. So if you happened to vacate your terminal to visit the restroom, you might find someone else typing furiously away at your computer upon your return.
Those were the best years at the Tribune. That was the last time I was exactly current with technology and all my energy was focused on reporting and writing. In all the intervening years, I struggled to learn formatting and new operating systems which always seemed to block my thinking process.
When email arrived at the Tribune, I scoffed. We had one terminal and one email address for the newsroom and we had to wait in line to use it.
“That will never work,” I said, content to stick with snail mail.
Now, I don’t know how we ever put out a paper without color band photos that arrived at my computer minutes after making a quick call to a promoter.
Thank God I never had to tweet or anything related to it. As editors asked us to tweet, add online content, chat on facebook, and take our own pictures, it was hard to squeeze in time to interview people.
Back in Pearl’s heyday, the interview was everything.
I think it still should be.