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Millennium Post

Telegraph as newsman’s tool

Earlier this month the telegram services bid adieu. That they did manage to exist till the 13th year of the 21st century -- the age of cyber communication – was quite surprising. The shutting down of the telegram services nonetheless helped me quickly recall the revolution that we have witnessed in the field of communication in the last two decades.

In 1992, when I joined Bhagalpur district bureau of the Patna edition of Hindustan Times, I was used to marvel at the prized possession of the veterans – the Press card issued by the central telegraph office at Patna. This card gave them certain status in the society as in that era of poor communications it gave them that authority to send reports to editorial offices without much hassle.

The lesser mortals like us depended on the tele-printer installed in the bureau, which came to life between 5 pm and 7 pm. During this time dispatches of both the Hindi and the English papers had to be sent. Since Hindustan had a circulation which was 10 times that of Hindustan Times, its dispatches took precedence. Whatever little time was left, it was utilised for the boss – the chief of bureau.

The other way out was to humour the tele-printer operator, who would keep my dispatch into machine’s memory and send it immediately on getting the line. But then these machines did not have very huge memory and it more often was used to store the daily circulation and business reports. This left me with the option of sending the dispatch through a postal courier, with the chance that the report could lie on the table of the news editor gathering dust for days.

However, once on the special instruction of the management, a report of mine was sent as the first dispatch on the tele-printer. It was coverage of the inauguration of the upgraded telegram facility at the local wire office. Since the company was dependent on the small mercies of telecom department, it ensured the report was not just dispatched on time but was also given an adequate display.
My first experience of using the facsimile machine (fax) was sometime in 1993-94, when the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) took a group of reporters to its Kahalgaon plant for the inaugural function. After the function we were assembled in a hall, which looked more like a classroom. On each desk, sheets of paper were neatly placed with a black sketch pen. On the teacher’s table was placed the facsimile machine.

We were told to neatly write our reports with black sketch pen so that impression on the other end of the line was neat. We all got down to writing our reports and on finishing it walked up to the operator’s table, who ceremoniously would put the sheets into the machine and dial the number of the editorial office. After several attempts he would get the number through and anxiously wait for the sheet to go inside the machine and come out on the other end without a hitch. Then wait for the report and pray that it should say – transmission successful. To be doubly sure, he would even call the operator at the other end and check if the transmission was fine.

An error report meant repeating the drill all over again. Having had my fill with the district level reporting, I returned to Delhi in 1994 and found a job with The Pioneer, the Lucknow paper launched in the national Capital by the redoubtable Lalit Mohan Thapar. The Pioneer was the first fully-computerised paper in the national Capital. For someone with the exposure explained above, it was quite a cultural shock. However, despite computerisation, The Pioneer still had the tele-printer machine and I was lucky to be a witness to how a dispatch was received at the other end with the ‘tick-tick’ sound. That’s how the machine got its name -- the ticker.

The next phase of evolution was around the turn of the century. We would still carry our portable type-writers on out-station reporting assignments. After filing reports we would rush to a nearby PCO, which had mushroomed in large numbers by then, to fax the report to the editorial office. Internet and cyber cafes were still a far cry.
During the 1998 Lok Sabha polls I was in Moradabad to do a constituency profile. The telephone exchange in Moradabad had burnt down and it could take another week before the lines were restored. With typed sheets I ran helter-skelter to dispatch my copy but to no avail. I was suggested that I should get in touch with the local office of Amar Ujala, the leading Hindi daily of Western Uttar Pradesh. I was told that they used satellite communication, whatever that meant.

The local editor received me with some scepticism and expressed doubt if he could be of any help. However, I managed to persuade him to do something as it was my out-station first assignment. He relented and talked to his bureau in Rampur. My reports were sent to the Rampur office using ‘satellite communication’, from where it was faxed to The Pioneer office in New Delhi. Finally at around 11 pm I managed to track a cellphone PCO near Moradabad station and shelled out a fortune to get confirmation of the report. The report was important, as Moradabad had grown into prominence as Priyanka Gandhi had just been married to a family from the brass town.

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