Forty-five years ago last August, I completed my summer as the first news staff intern at The Olympian, the daily newspaper in Olympia, Wash.

We wrote our stories on cheap, newsprint quality paper with Underwood upright typewriters. It was scissors and glue pots to cut and paste our copy. Corrections were by pencil. Editors told us to start over if it became too big a mess. They made their corrections and then the copy was hand-delivered to the back shop, where it was the last summer of big old Linotype machines setting every word in hot metal.

Step one inch over a line on the floor as you addressed Charlie, head linotype operator, and he would threaten your knuckles or maybe your life with a pica pole. First time, I was sure he was deadly serious.

It was the summer of ’74.

The next summer the Linotypes were gone. Underwoods were replaced with IBM Selectrics. Red and black pens corrected our words on white paper fed through an optical scanner.

The third summer was the first crude computer system. Green, yellow and red light bulbs hung high on a wall. Green meant everything was fine. Yellow was a warning to save your copy quickly because the computer was about to crash. Red meant it was down.

More often than not it just crashed with no yellow or red and you lost whatever you were working on. Ferocity of cursing correlated with how much was lost. It paid to be a frequent friend of the “save” key.

More entertaining was to watch a web break in the press room and see the massive stream of newsprint shooting high through the air, like a huge roll of toilet paper on the loose, as pressmen shrieked and scrambled to stop and rethread it.

Graduating from Washington State University in 1977 with a double major in communications and history, I started full time that fall at The Olympian covering outlying small towns, the Port of Olympia and religion.

Later it was cops and religion, or as Managing Editor Dean Shacklett called it, “sin and religion.” He liked me on the religion beat because nobody else wanted to do it and, as he said, I was the only one on staff who regularly attended church.

Everyone called him “Shack.” He was crusty and hard-nosed. His bark was worse than his bite. He went after the news, chips fall where they may.

A cloud of blue smoke often hung in the center of the windowless newsroom, where it was not uncommon to find eight cigars and 20 cigarettes active among the 30 or so people working. The couple of us “non-smokers” stood 25 feet outside the front door if we wanted fresh air.

A memorable early story was the aftermath of the 1979 sinking of the Hood Canal Bridge. An independent engineering study concluded the bridge was plenty strong but sank because maintenance workers left pontoon hatches unbolted on the floating portion. The storm blew open the hatches and filled pontoons with water. The state ignored that and built a much stronger bridge for a lot more money. It was an early lesson in government spending.

Six-and-a-half years at The Olympian was followed with a short stint as a public information officer for the Washington Legislature. Then, I was one of two political writers for The Times of Hammond, between Chicago and Gary, Ind. I covered the General Assembly in Indianapolis. Next were 21 years at The Wenatchee World and 10 at Capital Press.

My last six years at The World and all 10 at Capital Press have been covering agriculture, mostly tree fruit, my sweet spot.

My affinity for agriculture stems not solely from my last name but having grown up on a 173-acre hobby farm north of Olympia on Puget Sound where we had cattle, horses, hay, commercial timber and firewood.

Agriculture is vitally important to our economy and culture. We all like to eat. Too often it is ignored as many newspapers continue to decline.

Capital Press covers Pacific Northwest agriculture from an independent and objective perspective. It’s a service to agriculture and the greater public, as is its sister publication The Other Oregon, which seeks to connect rural and urban Oregonians.

Agriculture needs to tell its story. The press needs to treat it fairly.

Much of the mainstream media are doing the country a huge disservice by moving far beyond bias and advocacy and into propaganda and disinformation that threatens our democratic republic. An ill-informed electorate will make ill-informed decisions that will lead to a loss of our freedoms.

Dan Wheat retired Dec. 27 as Central Washington field reporter for Capital Press. He will continue covering the tree fruit industry on a limited, freelance basis.

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