Try sending a fish by email

Mar. 16, 2013 @ 02:20 PM

I glanced absent-mindedly, as a meeting slogged on, at the brown 10x13-inch envelope in front me. 

“Interdepartment Delivery” it said – with 50 rows of address lines covering both sides. A fixture of every newspaper where I’ve worked and I presume of countless other businesses, the envelopes move papers, documents and the like from person to person, office to office.

What caught my eye was that only about a dozen lines had been filled in on this one. And the first one, duly dated by the first person to use it, indicated it had first been sent on its way on Nov. 18, 1999 – more than 13 years ago.

A lot of long-unused envelopes like this have turned up in some rearranging and cleaning we’ve been doing lately, I’m told. They’re used a lot less frequently these days, anyway, as so much interoffice correspondence is done by email. Documents move along as attachments or are dropped onto company servers or public “cloud” services such as DropBox or Google Drive.

The envelope’s history – combined with the impending retirement of a colleague whose professional career stretches back to the days of filing stories by Western Union and writing on Royal typewriters – brought to mind other disappearing office fixtures.

It has been years since I’ve seen or used the once-familiar “routing slip.” Many of you will recall those – a small strip or square of paper, with a list of a few to several names, clipped or stapled to a letter, a newspaper clipping, a report or the like. (Publisher Rick Bean remembers using a rubber stamp).

As the material crept from desk to desk, each addressee would initial or check off his or her name and send it to the next person. A week or so later, it might have made its rounds. Frequently, though, an article the original sender thought gripping and important for all to read would end up under a pile of other unread papers on the desk of addressee number 3, never to complete its intended rounds.

Now, of course, we simply grab the electronic version of the material, key in a list of email addresses, and send it on its way.  Addressee number 3 can ignore it in his or her inbox for months without inconveniencing anyone else.

We exchange photos now with a tap of our smart-phone screen, and news photographers can have a photo from a basketball arena in editors’ hands in mere moments. Not so long ago, working on the metro desk at The Charlotte Observer, we’d dispatch taxicabs to the bus station to pick up undeveloped film sent from outlying bureaus.

I miss the pneumatic tubes that carried typed stories and hand-drawn page layouts from newsroom to composing room. If you’re old enough, you may remember them from department stores, where they carried cash from sales counter to some mysterious back office, to return with change and receipts.

Versions abound of newsroom stories, undoubtedly apocryphal, that go something like this. Bored copy editors on the late shift decapitated a fish, wrapped the headless body in copy paper, wrote “HTK” on it and shot it through the tube to composing. HTK was newspaper lingo for “head to come” – the story was sent to be set into type, a headline would be along later.

A few minutes after the fish body arrived, another tube would shoot to the composing room – this time, bearing the severed, bloody head. Angry compositors walked off the job.

Just try doing that by email. Surely, for all we’ve gained with new technology, something’s been lost.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or at