A tech lover owns up, signs off

The Baltimore Sun

After writing close to a thousand of these weekly essays, I won't bury the lead on this one: It's my last column for The Sun.

There. It was hard to say that out loud, and I spent two nights on a half-dozen elegant openings before I decided to get right to the point. Now I can talk about how much fun it's been, and how much I'll miss all of you.

But first, I'll let you in on a secret: I've been faking it all these years.

I am not a computer expert, or a nerd, or a techie by training or aptitude. I was a liberal arts major who barely passed high school math, snoozed through science and never saw a computer, much less touched one, until he was well into his 30s.

But I had a problem. It began with a new assignment on The Evening Sun - one that involved long hours and a longer commute.

With a 3-year-old and an infant at home, I was desperate to find some way to do my job well and still spend quality time with my family.

It occurred to me that I could do this by shifting some work hours around the clock a bit - writing stories late at night after the kids were in bed and filing them electronically by our 7 a.m. deadline.

People were already filing remotely from bureaus, but they were using $5,000 terminals. To make this scheme work within my meager budget, I thought I'd try one of those new home computers I'd been reading about.

Unfortunately, the only thing I knew about these machines was that RadioShack sold them. So I dropped into a Shack in Glen Burnie, convinced the guy behind the counter that I wasn't loco and exchanged $800 for a TRS-80 Color Computer - a gray box with a built-in chiclet keyboard and a cable that hooked up to an old TV set.

Even that seemed like a fortune at the time. But the salesman threw in a 300-baud modem, a tape recorder to store my stories and a phone number for Mark Rothstein, a brilliant electrical engineer who figured out how to make the gadget send my prose to the paper - and inspired me to investigate all the other things the magic box could do.

That was in 1983. And I was right about one thing - the computer did change my life. It certainly gave me more time with my family and made me one of the earliest casual telecommuters, although nobody used the term in those days.

The computer also opened doors. Late at night, after I'd filed my stories and the rest of the family was asleep, I got hooked on the wonderful BASIC programming manual that RadioShack packed with those early machines.

The book was designed for smart 12-year-olds, so I could just about understand what was going on. Gradually, it dawned on me that even a dumb political science major could program one of these things. All it took was a perverse willingness to make mistakes.

OK, I was no Bill Gates. But I learned how to do some useful things with the machine besides play Donkey Kong.

I used it to track congressional voting records, analyze racial voting patterns in city elections, and figure out where candidates were getting their money - and spending it.

There wasn't much commercial software in those days - or not that I could afford - so I rolled my own. When somebody actually wrote a spreadsheet for that little computer, I thought I was in heaven - and used it to do a series on defense spending.

Today this is known as Computer Assisted Reporting, a recognized specialty that gives reporters and editors the power to sort through huge volumes of public data and write stories that might have taken months or years in the days before PCs - if they were possible to do at all. Like me, most of the people who do this are not math jocks or geeks - just reporters who want answers to questions and use computers as a tool.

After I'd bungled my way through enough of this stuff to be dangerous, I thought it might a fun sideline to share what I'd learned with readers who were still mystified by the digital world but keen to learn more about it.

As it turned out, there were and are plenty of you - enough to have rescued the column twice over the years when the bean counters threatened to kill it off. For that outpouring of support, I will always be grateful.

Alas, there aren't enough of you in general these days. Readers, I mean. Not to mention advertisers.

These are tough times for newspapers, broadcast TV stations and other traditional news outlets. We depend on readers and advertisers who have disappeared into a market fragmented by the Internet and a notion of "narrowcasting" that has chopped every medium into tinier and tinier niches.

You've probably read about the cutbacks here at The Sun and other Tribune newspapers - although our company is hardly alone in this regard. By tomorrow afternoon, more than 50 of us will exit the newsroom - about 20 percent of a staff that was already a third smaller than it was just five years ago.

The sense of grief in the newsroom is palpable. But I'm one of the lucky ones. With a decent buyout offer on the table and 38 wonderful years as a reporter, editor and columnist under my belt, I decided it was time.

The young children who prompted my adventure into computing have somehow morphed into adults.

The 3-year-old is a telecommunications lawyer in Washington who will be married in a few days. His little brother just finished three years as an eighth-grade teacher in New York, where he developed an online curriculum that uses blogs to teach writing to urban middle-schoolers.

I'm insanely proud of both of them, and I like to think their vocations had a just a little bit to do with being in the very first group of American kids who can't remember life without a computer.

I'm also eternally grateful for the patience of my wife, a charter member of the Computer Widows Association who has recently found sweet revenge by watching costume dramas on TV while she answers e-mail on her iPod Touch.

Although my column departs these pages today, I'm not disappearing from the Earth. My wife insists that after four decades in newspapers, it's time for me to find a real job. No telling where that will lead.

Meanwhile, I still have plenty to say about tech issues - including the impending digital TV transition/rip-off. Stop by my Web site at himowitz.com and read all about it.

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