My subject is Mike Thoele, a retired reporter and editor who has owned weekly newspapers in Oregon, written several books, and taught as an adjunct in the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Most recently, he filled in as interim publisher of the Oregon Daily Emerald, from September 2010 to February 2011, during which time I had the pleasure of working with him as the paper’s editor in chief. Although we differ in age by 50 years, my experience working with him has taught me a lot about doing daily journalism and what makes a compelling story. The qualities of good journalism don’t change much over time, even with shifting media and technology, and he has adapted to it all. He sat down with me to talk about how changing technology and media have affected his life as a student and professional journalist.
As a college journalist, Mike Thoele watched hot type being set to print newspapers, when the word “slug” meant a piece of lead. Fifty years later, Thoele teaches student journalists who have plugged in to the digital age, when “slug” has lost the connotation of its printing press roots.
He’s seen the brunt of the transition from primitive print to digital, but it hasn’t affected his view of quality journalism.
“There are some things I’ve been able to do in a journalism lifetime I would have never been able to do with the old technology,” Thoele said.
From an early age Mike Thoele, now a semi-retired journalist at age 70, remembers routines built around print media and spending time with his family and papers from Chicago and St. Louis every Sunday in his small hometown of Effingham, Ill.
Thoele went on to a career as a community and off-the-beaten-path reporter and editor for newspapers and has continued his love with this particular medium his entire life.
For Thoele, newspapers have been a constant in his life, but what’s changed for him in his nearly 40-year journalism career has been the technology that produces journalism.
When Thoele was the editor of his campus weekly from 1962 to 1963 at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind., the paper was printed using a Goss flatbed press. A linotype machine organized pieces of metal type line by line. A print shop worker would position those lines in a steel form and lock it up around the edges so the type wouldn’t fall out. The forms got transported to the bed of the press, which went back and forth beneath a roller to print the paper.
Even though this happened 50 years ago, his college experience sounds similar to today.
“I spotted an error, so I hurried it back to the print shop. They went to the linotype and made the correction and we had a beer,” Thoele said. “And we had another beer, and they started the press but had forgotten to put the stops back, so all the pieces went flying to the ground, and they spent the rest of the night sorting it out — line by line.”
It was at the Register-Guard where Thoele experienced the majority of technological changes that would influence how he reported — everything from the typewriter to the teletype to the computer.
When he started there in 1969, he worked as a telecommuter back when “tele” referred to the “teletype,” a cross between a typewriter and a telegraph that Thoele used to transmit stories from his bureau in Junction City to the main bureau in Eugene.
He would write stories on a typewriter and the retype it into the teletype when he was ready to send it.
Thoele kept the teletype in his kitchen, and it required a special code to connect with the other Register-Guard bureaus — typically the letters EE.
“What I didn’t know was the Cottage Grove guy and the Florence guy played chess over the teletype,” Thoele said. “And one night — crash, boom, bim, bam — ‘Take that you bastard.’ It was several months before I found out ‘EEN3’ was part of a chess move.”
Technology and the generation gap came to a head at the Register-Guard during his time there, but just as Thoele has over the years, even the most old-school copy editor in the newsroom became a technology convert.
“Everyone thought computers would be the death of him, but it didn’t happen with any of those old guys,” Thoele said. “They adapted.”
As early as 1976, the Register-Guard had a first-generation computer terminal, and by 1993 when he left the paper work research and write a book, the computers were pretty state-of-the-art for that time.
Today, Thoele only occasionally uses his cell phone and doesn’t use his Facebook much, but he does use email and the Internet a lot to conduct business and read the news.
He sees the Internet and Google as being particularly essential for modern journalism and welcomes the ability to organize information coherently to better tell stories.
Even with these technological changes, he says they were always an advantage to journalism and reporting.
“If there were some of them that weren’t for the better, I can’t think of them,” Thoele said.
Thoele has seen a lot more different kinds of technology than I have, but we’re similar in that we grew up with newspapers. And we’ve both had to adapt to incoming technologies and constantly reexamine how we report and edit. I used to be a print person through and through, but online and interactive media opportunities made me change my mind. I certainly read more online news and use social media more frequently, but the technology has made me think more critically about how I consume and produce media. The Internet has shaped my generation, much as the newspaper shaped Thoele’s. If there’s a constant through all of these changes, it’s that good storytelling and good journalism does not falter with the changes in technology. Processes may change, but the fundamentals of journalism’s mission to convey information to the public and to tell stories remains at the heart of what I’ve learned as a student journalist and what Mike Thoele has helped instill in his students.