Newspaperman’s career spanned era of change
Byron Smialek’s funeral will be held tomorrow, on what would have been, coincidentally, the retired newspaperman’s 70th birthday. Those who read his obituary yesterday might have been surprised by the length of his career: beginning when he was just 17 years old and stretching nearly half a century.
The changes that occurred in the information industry during that career are astounding, and Smialek was there for all of them.
When he began writing sports stories for the Canonsburg Daily Notes, Dwight D. Eisenhower was still president. Not only did Canonsburg have its own daily newspaper, so did Charleroi, Monongahela and Waynesburg. And Washington had two: the morning Observer and the afternoon Reporter. At that time, newspapers were the primary source of news, entertainment and information. Television did report news from around the nation and the world, but for only 15 minutes around dinner time, and news was even more abbreviated on radio.
No Internet existed. If you needed stock prices, baseball standings, racing results, the TV schedule, local election coverage or police reports, you needed to read a newspaper.
When Smialek was writing for the Notes, and later the Fort Collins Coloradan, the Greensburg Tribune-Review and in his first years at the Observer-Reporter, newspapers were produced in pretty much the same way they had been for the previous 100 years.
Stories were hammered out on manual typewriters, and type was set from molten metal. Composing rooms of newspapers then were noisy, hot, hazardous factories, where the news that had been gathered each day was manufactured.
Then came electric typewriters, and rudimentary computers. “Cold type” replaced “hot metal,” and printers began to cut and wax strips of printed paper rather than assemble columns of lead. Then computer terminals replaced the electric typewriters on reporters’ and editors’ desks, and the printers’ jobs disappeared, along with proofs and proofreaders.
Meanwhile, as its presence and use in American homes continued to grow, television competed with newspapers for the attention of their readers. But while these giants were occupied with their battle for advertising dollars, the personal computer entered the market. And when the Internet came along, people had found an entirely new – and free – way to find information.
Though they were slow to do it, newspapers, radio and television realized they could not beat the Internet, but they could join it.
For Smialek and all other journalists, taking the newspaper online threatened their livelihood but also offered the opportunity to reach a much larger audience. Newspaper circulation was declining rapidly, but the number of readers growing. The columns Smialek wrote had once reached only those who bought a paper at the newsstand or had it delivered to their home; but the Internet meant those columns could be read from anywhere in the world.
We don’t know what the future holds for newspapers, but we do know that there will always be a need for reporters who pound the pavement, develop sources, uncover wrongdoing, expose scoundrels, offend the arrogant and champion the little guy.
There will always be a need for newspapermen like Byron Smialek.