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Newsroom inspiration: After 30-plus years, GateHouse staffers reflect on industry changes

They first punched a newsroom time clock in an era when paste-up wax and pica poles were the norm, not Storify and embedded video. Some came expecting to get out quickly, and some knew from the start they were destined to do this job for decades.

Veterans Ron Johns, Brenda Gilhooly, Wally Haas and Dave Reynolds are part of an elite club of employees who’ve spent 30 or more years in a newsroom that’s become part of the greater GateHouse Media family.

And while they’ve each seen numerous technological advances, changes in the way their papers present the day’s top stories, and survived trainings and re-trainings, the quartet perfectly illustrate the wild ride that is a life in journalism.

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Brenda Gilhooly (clockwise from top left), Dave Reynolds, Ron Johns, and Wally Haas have all spent more than 30 years in their respective newsrooms.

GHNewsroom.com asked each to talk briefly about the changes they’ve seen through the years.

Brenda Gilhooly, Middletown Times Herald-Record

GHN: What’s your backstory, Brenda?

BG: I joined the Record in 1981, moving here from Maryland, where I was an assistant editor at a semi-weekly. The plan was to come to Middletown for one year, get some daily newspaper experience, then head on back to Maryland. The one-year plan went kaput; I kept getting promoted, and the job changes throughout the years kept me engaged and challenged. I started on the copy desk, moved to assistant copy desk chief, then to features editor, then to features/Sunday editor, community editor, and now custom publications editor. Each executive editor who came here had a different vision of how the newsroom should operate and switched things up, so everyone’s position frequently changed. It kept things lively.

GHN: So, what’s the biggest difference in this crazy business from your first day through today?

BG: When I started in September 1981, I had never worked on a computer. Even though the computers were primitive by today’s standards, I came here not knowing how to move a cursor. Editors also did their own layouts on paper, then went to the composing room and oversaw them putting the paper together.

GHN: What’s the newsroom moment that stands out the most?

BG: I was able to say those words: “Stop the press!!” It was 1983, everyone had gone home for the night and the first editions were on the press. We had been following a news story on the wire all evening about Korean Air Lines flight 007 disappearing in Russian airspace. I was alone, doing some end-of-shift paperwork, when I got a phone call from a Middletown woman who was desperate for information about the status of that plane: Her husband was on it. There was, of course, no Internet, and her best source of information was the newspaper. I wrote up a quick story about how a local man was on the missing plane, pulled apart page 1, stopped the press and got the story into our late edition. I stayed on the phone with the wife until about 6 a.m., giving her updates as the Associated Press sent them over. Unfortunately, the plane had been shot down; no survivors.

Wally Haas, Rockford Register Star

GHN: Give us your backstory, Wally.

WH: OK. I started here Jan. 28, 1980 as a copy editor. I’ve been wire editor, assistant news editor, regional editor, Sunday news editor, news editor, executive news editor, assistant managing editor and editorial page (now called opinions) editor since 2001.

GHN: What’s changed in the world of journalism?

WH: Changes in the business … how much space do you have?

Technology, of course, has revolutionized our business — and society. I started in newspapers in the hot-type days. Most people have only seen the lead we used to make plates in a museum. It was quite progressive when we went from hot type to pasting up pages in pieces. Then we were able to produce pages in half sheets and then full pages would come off a giant printer. The next step was pagination and then a direct-to-plate process.

Our first online venture was an electronic bulletin board system in the 1990s. It was very crude by today’s standards, but it was a step toward the future. I’m not sure when we launched our website; I think it was 1999.

Of course today we post stories on the web ASAP and we tweet, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, whatever to reach our audience. In “the old days,” and I’ve been around long enough to legitimately refer to “the old days,” print was the one and only way to deliver news to our readers. We have so many tools at our disposal today that it can become overwhelming.

GHN: What do you see in the future?

WH: My former boss used to say that one day we would deliver the news via holograms. I don’t think that day is too far off.

Journalists today have to be more versatile. Again, in “the old days” you could afford to specialize whether it be a specific beat, a copy editor or a headline writer. Today’s journalist must be adept in all sorts of topics and all sorts of media. We’re TV, radio, web gurus and print journalists all rolled into one.

Ron Johns, Utica Observer-Dispatch

GHN: What’s your backstory, Ron? You started at the O-D and never left, right?

RJ: I joined the Observer-Dispatch on Aug. 1, 1985. I started as a paste-up artist in the Production Department, then worked as a designer for several years. I came up to the newsroom in 1994 as a copy editor/designer. I went through several titles over the next 20 years or so: systems/graphics editor; design editor; special publications editor; senior editor for production; then managing editor. I was promoted to executive editor in 2014.

GHN: What changes have you seen in the industry?

RJ: The biggest difference is the technology used to put the paper out each day. In 1985, my tools were an exacto blade, ruler and paste-up table. We put our work out there and only heard from readers when we made an error. Today, we’re putting together short videos and interactive graphics one minute, posting content and getting instant feedback from readers and analytics the next.

GHN: What’s your newsroom moment that stands out the most?

RJ: The silence then build of momentum in the newsroom as 9-11 happened before our eyes. We all felt the loss, but knew what we had to do. I had experienced that same silence in the newsroom years earlier as the O.J. Simpson verdict was read. That silence lasted much longer — a different type of shock.

Because you need expertise in all those areas, this is an exciting time to be a journalist. I think the future is bright and I’m honored to be part of it.

Dave Reynolds, Peoria Journal Star

GHN: Tell us your backstory, Dave.

DR: I joined the Journal Star in November of 1982. In the beginning, I covered high school sports and spent about half my time on the desk as a rim guy. Within a couple of years, I started covering college sports and backing up on the Peoria Chiefs minor-league baseball beat. In 1987, I began about a 15-year stint of covering major-league baseball for our regional teams in Chicago and St. Louis on a semi-regular basis and was also the Chiefs’ beat writer from 1995-2003.

In 1990, I became the Bradley basketball beat writer, a role I hold to this day, having covered every BU game in those 25 years (779). I also fill in on other assignments, mostly college sports, during the off-season.

GHN: What stands out in your memories of the newsroom through the years.

DR: The camaraderie we had as a newsroom way, way back when we fielded a company softball team. Great fun!

GHN: How have things changed for sports reporters over the last three decades?

DR: Thirty years ago, I would tout my TRS 80 prehistoric laptop to a game, take notes during the game, get interviews after and then place the phone into the coupler ears. I’d wait at least five minutes for transmission and pray. About half the time, the story would get through. And sometimes half or less of it would arrive at the desk. So by the time you sent it three or four times, you might have success. If not, start dictating. So you had to allow at least 30 minutes before your deadline to start this process.

Now, while technology is 100 times more reliable, there’s much more to do. For a typical Bradley game, I send a short pre-game story to the web with updated info from my advance story in the paper that day. I tweet probably 30 to 40 times a game. Immediately after the contest ends, I send a quick a short web story. Then I run to the media room and garner interviews. It’s then time to sit down and write my full game story, notes and team report card.

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