Tuesday, February 16, 2010

It's déjà vu all over again

Years ago, I worked in a type- writer factory.

Yes, type- writers.

Not because it got me closer to journalism, but because the factory was one of the better-paying employers in town.

I was a college undergraduate, unhappy with my major and where I was headed. I was on a track to become a high school teacher, likely in social studies, but didn't want to be a teacher. I wanted to be a reporter, but couldn't afford to attend a school that offered journalism as a course of study.

So in answer to that conundrum, I quit going to classes and dropped out of college.

I'm not sure how I thought that would get me closer to journalism either, but it got me closer to the machines on which reporters then composed their stories.

In those days, you could walk into the Smith Corona typewriter factory, fill out some paperwork, pick up your safety glasses and be on the floor by the afternoon.

Like most factories, you made your money by piece work -- how much product you could produce during your shift. And if you were good, your pay was too.

I, unfortunately, was lousy at soldering the small metal components that were the typewriters' guts. An inspector would reject so many of my solders that I never made piece rate; I fled for the first retail job I could find. A few months later, I returned to college part-time, changed my major and took a journalism minor when one finally was offered.

But the factory experience stayed with me.

Foremost, it taught me I didn't have the temperament (or dexterity) for piece work. Later, it offered a fundamental lesson in business: adapt or die.

Smith Corona, which traced its roots to 1886, didn't anticipate the personal computer and other electronic office equipment. By the time it recognized the sea change, the company already was several product iterations behind. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1995, reorganized and re-emerged two years later, but never caught up. Another filing, in 2000, kept the name alive but not much else.

That sounds a lot like the newspaper industry today: Caught by surprise by the rapid adoption of everything digital, it's scrambling to survive -- cutting expenses (staff, editions, distribution) and frantically trying anything that might sustain readership and revenue.

"Our first priority," a Smith Corona executive told the New York Times at the time of the first bankruptcy filing, "is to stabilize our operations in the very short term while maintaining and building upon our longstanding relationships with key customers."

It's eerie how that could have been uttered just yesterday by almost any newspaper executive.

(Photo by me: the Smith Corona portable Deville Deluxe)

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