How technology enables my procrastinating

John DeereIt feels as if my feet have slipped into the Red Wing boots worn by my grandfather’s generation.

When my grandfather, who died last year, started farming in the 1930s, he pulled his machinery behind a team of horses named Pat and Mike. His first tractor was a 1936 Farmall F12, a far cry from the behemoths that roll across farm fields nearly everywhere today.

And yet, the changes in farm equipment in his lifetime may pale in comparison to the technology advances many of us take for granted.

At the risk of sounding like an old man, please allow me to tell a story about telling a story — a freelance assignment that was due today. I started working on it around 7:30 Monday night. (Don’t tell my editor.)

Two hours later, I had interviewed three sources, located plenty of useful background information and finished writing a 740-word story. One of the sources called me via Facebook, which I didn’t even know you could do. That’s how we conducted his interview after he had read the questions I sent to him as a Facebook message.

It got me to thinking about the journalistic equivalent to old tractors: The time and effort that would have been needed once upon a time to interview three people, pull together information from multiple sources and then write a story. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but here is one story that exemplifies what was sometimes required at one of my first newspaper jobs.

In April 1991, I was a 24-year-old reporter at the Ottumwa Courier. On a weekend that I was scheduled to work as the on-call reporter, I went to the office on a Sunday morning to call the Law Enforcement Centers in every county in what the Courier used to regard as its coverage area. This included Lucas County, where I grew up.

These calls — which had to be made in the newsroom because few reporters had the Internet access and personal computers they would have needed to report, write and file stories from home — usually went something like this:

Reporter: Hey, I’m a reporter for the Courier. What’s new in your county today?

Dispatcher: Nothing.

Reporter: OK. Thanks.

Call after call after call went like this regardless of what may — or may not — have actually happened. Except for this particular Sunday, when the dispatcher who answered in Lucas County was someone I knew.

You didn’t hear this from me, she said, but there may have been a homicide in Derby, which is one of the smallest towns in a county with fewer than 10,000 residents in the entire county.

She didn’t give up much else — just enough information to get me started. Ultimately, I wrote a story about how Eric Querrey, 15, had been arrested and accused of shooting to death Stacey Halferty, 16. It was horrific in every way. Essentially, two young lives were lost since Querrey, who is now 38, was eventually convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.  He was resentenced in 2013 to life with the possibility of parole after 35 years. He is an inmate at the Newton Correctional Facility in Newton, Iowa.

All of the background in the previous sentence I was able to find via Google in a matter of minutes.

But to write the first report about the murder and get photos, I worked more than 12 hours and drove a couple hundred miles, getting back to the newsroom in time to write a story for the next morning’s paper. I had to persuade someone to loan to me actual photos of Halfterty and Querrey and then follow through to make sure those photos were returned.

Back then, I would have been unable to imagine doing the work I did in two hours Monday night without having to make multiple trips to the library. Or without waiting hours for someone to even return my call. Smart phones and other technology help make all of these things happen today in minutes.

And I won’t even start in on how I’m able to publish this story without the expense of buying a printing press, paper and ink. All that was required was a click of the “publish” button.

It gives me a better idea of how a combine that can harvest 18 rows of corn at once must have looked to someone who started farming with a team of horses and single-row plow.