The Wireroom


By Lindy Leo


Newsweek  in its years in print used every telecommunications technology except the original Morse Code’s dots and dashes.  I actually started with Morse in the U.S. Navy  in World War II.  But when I arrived in 1963 in the Washington bureau as a part timer, we were long since using the Morse replacement: punched  tape.  Telegraphers used typewriter keyboards that activated a machine to punch individual codes for each letter of  a reporter's file into nearly endless rolls of one-inch-wide yellow paper tape. The tape  ran through a mechanical reader and sent the  reporter's file and messages by wire to teletype machines in New York, which printed the content out.

   This same kind of tape, used to transmit stock market prices, rained down in the “ticker tape parades” along Wall Street that celebrated every American hero for most of the 20th Century.

  What Was: We sat all day at keyboards transcribing reporters’ files and messages in the Washington bureau wire room.  All this seems so quaint, so ancient now.  But every publication and news operation had such wire rooms until the Internet finally made wire rooms—and telegraphers—obsolete.  That’s only about 15 years ago.  We telegraphers shared some of the romance of journalism. We were seeing a lot of  news first, working on deadlines and dealing with high tempered reporters and editors, hearing their blowups and arguments among themselves and sometimes with New York.

   During the Watergate escapades that brought down then President Richard M. Nixon, regular work days turned into 18 hours. Some weeks overnighters became the norm. Sporadic landline outages, always a problem, caused havoc on everybody’s nerves.

   Our wireroom credo was see all, hear all, tell none.  My colleagues in this venture were: Anthony “Guy” Bocell, William “Bill” Ellis, Edward “Wally” Smith, Rick Taggs, Walter “Pimlico”Williams, and, later, Steve Tuttle.

   Billy Beer: Some of the curiosities I remember are these.  In the 1960s, One of our female staffers, Norma Milligan, actually danced with President Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House in the 1960s.  She was from Texas, too.  In the 1970s,  many  people thought Billy Carter was “crazy” for wanting to stay in Georgia and drink beer. Billy’s retort was this: “I have a mother that joined the Peace Corps, a sister who is an ordained preacher, and a peanut farmer brother that is the President.  Now, who do you think is crazy?”  Billy actually sold his own brand of brew, (remember Billy Beer?)  In the 1980s, Margaret Warner, now with PBS, was banned from the White House by President George H.W. Bush because she wrote a magazine cover story that called Bush a “wimp.”  In the 1990s, after Evan Thomas gave up running the bureau to concentrate completely on writing, we had so many bureau chiefs in such a short time I can’t remember their names.

   The technology that replaced punch tape first was magnetic tape.  We in the wire room still did the keyboard work on that.  Then came “Big Blue,” IBM, with magnetic discs that reporters

produced from their own word processors.  This relieved the “toilers” of the wire room from the tedious humdrum of re-keying the typewritten copy for ransmission to N.Y.  But we still had to play those discs through a reader.  Then came the Internet, which let reporters send files directly.  We telegraphers became trainers and fixers for the new systems, which had all sorts of bugs and problems in the first years of their use.  But the technology improved.

 Can you visualize a “dots-and-dashes” Navy radioman, like myself, surviving very long in this era?

   This is how Morse said goodbye, as I do now:

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Lindy Leo joined the Washington bureau part time in 1963, went full time in 1986 and retired in 1996.