Computer columnist logs off one last time

The Baltimore Sun

Editor's note: After a 40-year career at the Chicago Tribune, the last 14 years of which he spent demystifying and untangling the complexities of the computer age for readers, Jim Coates is retiring.

Well, boys and girls, it's time for the old guy with the white beard to log off.

Ah, war stories. I've got thousands of them, but relax. For that kind of stuff, you can wait for my autobiography - the working title is Famous People Who Have Known Me.

But let me just tell you about the most prescient piece I ever wrote. It wasn't a column. It was a memo to F. Richard Ciccone, the Chicago Tribune's managing editor back in 1992.

To set the scene, after a decade-plus working in the newspaper's Washington bureau and another decade-plus living on airplanes as the correspondent who covered the Western U.S., he ordered me back to the Chicago mother ship and, I feared, mothballs. I was to cover the banking industry.

If ever somebody did not belong covering the banking beat, it was your humble correspondent. I ran away to marry a 19-year-old bookkeeper when I was 20 and haven't balanced a checkbook or done taxes since. On the other hand, by 1992, I had become a crazed personal computer hobbyist.

Scrambling for a way to avoid the banking beat, I decided to sell the boss on letting me cover computers instead of cashiers.

I told him that we stood on the brink of a revolution that would change the world forever. The personal computer, then in roughly 10 percent of homes, was about to transform the ways humans communicated - with innovations such as the newfangled America Online e-mail service. Soon, I prophesied, we'd all be handling our household budgets with software such as the Lotus 123 spreadsheet program they were using down in the bookkeeping department.

Why, there even will come a day, I told my big boss, when things like movies and music will be sold as software rather than on reels of celluloid and discs of vinyl. He needed to cover it all before it was too late and the editors at the rival paper across the street beat him to it.

I did not really believe that movies were going to become software. I was scrambling to survive using the most powerful tool in an investigative reporter's arsenal: Tell the boss that whatever story you are selling is possibly the biggest one that there ever was and that if he doesn't move fast, the competition will be first with the story that changes the world.

You cannot imagine how stunned I was when I finally realized that my hyperbole had become reality. This was the biggest story to hit the newspaper business since, at least, the invention of the 5 Star Sports Full Markets Red Streak Final.

For us ink-stained newspaper nuts, the Internet became The End of the World as We Know It - TEOTWAWKI, as today's kiddies put it in dime-a-pop text messages.

It's an end of sorts for me, too: After 14 years before the multimedia mast, I can jump ship and, believe me, it's time for a nice long swim.

This also is one of the toughest times to leave the newspaper game. For one thing, the actual mechanics of the job become easier every day. The same Web browsers and programs that did so much to lure away readers and advertisers make it possible for workaday journalists to do their stuff better, faster, cheaper.

The new leaner and ever-meaner industry can thrive with far fewer checkers and typesetters and librarians and broken-down column writers.

People like me, who called themselves newspaper folk, give way to journalists who work equally well in bits on broadband as ink on paper. The propeller head in me can't wait to see how this brave new, wired world, with all the wonders in it, plays out.

The newspaper reporter in me is very sad to see that the revolution I inadvertently exploited to get this cushy job continues to cannibalize the great art and craft of the well-reported word printed on cheap paper.

So, to paraphrase another broken-down, old newspaper columnist named Walter Winchell: Goodbye, Mr. and Missus America Online, wherever you may be. I've loved every minute of telling you about TEOTWAWKI. You welcomed me into your homes and home pages far more than I deserved. But I'm outta here.

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