By Joe Sheller / Media Columnist
On May 20, one of my daughters passed an important personal milestone, receiving her nursing pin in a ceremony at Kirkwood Community College.
While she is already a licensed practical nurse, it means she is one exam away from achieving her dream of becoming a registered nurse.
There wasn’t much coverage of this year’s graduates in local media, and that’s OK. While the Gazette and KCRG had feature stories on the same topic – twins graduating from the University of Iowa who did research in the lab where, it turns out, they were also conceived in vitro – and there was the usual smattering of photo galleries and graduation videos on local news sites, most graduation events this year have been personal rather than broadly newsworthy.
At high schools and colleges across the Corridor, students donned caps and gowns and walked awkwardly to the sounds “Pomp and Circumstance,” swelling their parents’ hearts with pride while they went largely unnoticed by the rest of us.
True, sometimes a graduation speaker will make news, although that didn’t seem to happen much this year. Media focus on unusual events, and somehow a headline like “Hundreds graduate in flawless Coe College ceremony” doesn’t seem likely.
Still, this graduation season put me in a reflective mood, thinking about how slowly change creeps up on us, how different our media environment is today than it was decades ago, and how much media and the issues they face have stayed the same.
That mood was reinforced because I had just re-watched the 2017 movie, “The Post.” If you haven’t viewed it, it would be worth your time. It’s not entirely historically accurate – as is usual in a Hollywood movie – but, as such historically based movies go, I think it’s pretty good. In particular, it’s a reminder of what media was like a generation ago.
One of the stars of the movie is the Linotype machine. It was a complex, giant contraption invented late in the 19th century that used melted lead to cast lines of type that could be placed in a form to create a printing plate for a newspaper page.
“The Post” concerns the famous Pentagon Papers case when both the New York Times and the Washington Post published excerpts from a secret government report on the history of the Vietnam war. And, like most newspaper movies, it features a handful of printing press montages. In this case, they actually back things up to the pre-press process before showing a Linotype in operation.
I didn’t graduate from college until 1982. “The Post” recounts events of 1971, and the computer revolution that would reshape the media industry was already underway by the time I earned my sheepskin. At the newspapers where I spent my career, the Linotypes had already been removed.
In my day, we used primitive, dedicated computers (good only for publishing) to create printouts on photo paper that were waxed and pasted to create a page that would then be used to make a thin aluminum printing plate.
Today, the newspaper production process is much simpler than in 1971 or even 1982. No one melts wax to adhere photographic paper to pages – we go directly from page layout software to printing plate without much intervening work.
As printing has gotten easier, it has also become more extraneous. In the days of “The Post,” the consumer watched the evening newscasts, but much of the key information of the day was only available via the front pages that had been so laboriously cast in liquid metal.
Today, the world is at our fingertips via the smartphones in our pockets. We can get news whenever and wherever we want.
I don’t know the exact year when Linotype machines were phased out at the Gazette, the Daily Iowan or the Press-Citizen. But any college student who graduates this year will have to rent “The Post” to see one in action.
Still, the movie also has more timeless messages – important ones about the role of a free press and how journalists are protected by the First Amendment so that those in power can be held accountable. A character quotes from a Supreme Court ruling to note that the press should serve the interests of the governed and not the governors.
Even if the Linotypes are all gone, that role of the press is still what members of the class of 2018 should remember and preserve. That, and if their degree is in nursing, how to painlessly give a shot.
Joe Sheller is an associate professor of communication and journalism at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.