The tech jinx

The tech jinx

: The Chicago Tribune nearly didn’t publish yesterday because of a software upgrade that turned into downgrade.

This made me reminisce about Tribune technology disasters I have known.

I was at the paper while we were making the switch from hot type to cold type (and if you don’t know what I mean by that, all I can say is: enjoy your youth). The gigantic boxcar-sized machine that did what your little HP printer does today was fed paper tape of stories and then it spun a black strip with clear letters on it (it could hold only a few fonts at once) and as light shone through it would expose the photographic paper to create the galleys (not pages) of type. One day, it died. Like a journalist precursor to iRobot, it erased its own memory and all the programming. The expert had to be flown in to rescue the paper and let us publish. How did this happen? Turns out that the coincidence of a sequence of characters in a golf story happened to be the command to the machine to erase memory.

And then there was the time we installed our first editorial system. That’s how I got involved in computers and technology way back in 1974, my children: I was working midnight rewrite, waiting for somebody to die a terrible death so I could write about it, and while bored, I played with the computers that scared everyone else in the joint and became the expert. But I found out later that this was installed as a scab system in case of a typographers’ strike. Since we did not yet have a contract allowing us to tie the system directly to that cold-type machine, we edited our stories on the system and then at the end of the process, made a printout and sent that down to the composing room, where it was retyped. The original kluge. Well, if anybody ever forgot to hit one button on this gigantic kerchunketa printer, it would sit idle and nobody would know that stories weren’t printing out. So, more than once, we came to deadline and somebody would call up from composing and ask whether we were ever going to send any copy down. That one button on that printer almost kept us from publishing.

The Tribune replaced that system with a custom-made Caddie that, soon after it was installed at huge expense and effort, didn’t work. It was such a disaster that the paper assigned its own Pulitzer-winning task force of investigative reporters to investigate what had happened. They found that all kinds of stupid compromises had been made during the design and the system ended up with about as much memory as the PC on which you’re reading this tale.

Moral to the story: Media companies often don’t do technology well.