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PennDOT Celebrates 50 Years of Building Communities: Meet Rich Kirkpatrick

April 01, 2021 12:00 PM
By: Suzy Atkins

​When Rich Kirkpatrick retired from PennDOT, he said he felt like a "dinosaur." I had to pause when he said that. Rich is a wealth of information. He was head of the Harrisburg Associated Press office for 16 years and worked for AP in Philadelphia and Harrisburg for a total of just over 24 years, and then 22 years at PennDOT. He served as PennDOT's Director of Communications for the past four years and previously served as Press Secretary between 1996 and 2011 and again between 2013 until being named Communications Director in 2015. Between 2011 and 2013, he was Driver Safety Manager in the Bureau of Driver Licensing. 

A dinosaur. That word hung in the air as I thought about how much change in communication methods he has witnessed during his career.

Rich went on to explain when he started writing in high school, he had taken a class in smoke signals. I'm just kidding, of course, but that is how he makes it seem as he begins to unravel his tale of his life as a reporter. He had used a typewriter and would hand write edits on the paper. Retype the final draft. This went on throughout college. I neglected to ask him if it was a manual or electric typewriter.

After college, he took a job at The Grit, the national small-town weekly newspaper based in Williamsport, where they used a hot lead press or typesetting. In printing or typography, it is also called mechanical typesetting. This sounded as if it was a step up from the Gutenberg Press. This method injects molten type metal into a mold that has the shape of one or more glyphs. The resulting slugs, usually letters or symbols, are then used to press ink onto the paper. This technology reduced labor since the type sorts did not need to be slotted into position manually and cast crisp new type for each printing job.

Then he described the Linotype machines. These machines would set up one line at a time (think "line o'type") which was useful for rapid newspaper printing. It was the standard technology used for mass-market printing.

When Rich went to work at the AP in the 70's, he used a tape system to get the news from the typewriter into a rudimentary computer system. He described it differently than what I recall from old Westerns, when the puny guy tapped out a Morse code message. His written copy would be "punched" or typed into a machine that produced a ticker tape in a code. The tape would be fed into a computer and it would store the stories for transmissions to the newspapers and broadcast stations. The stories would print out in large, noisy, teletype machines at 66 words per minute. The AP had a variety of services, with larger newspapers and broadcast stations having separate circuits for national, state and sports stories with smaller papers taking all those news categories on one circuit. Editors at the smaller newspapers would often call the AP staff to complain that the specific story they needed was jammed up behind too many other stories they didn't need right away, so it was a constant juggling act to get everybody what they wanted to meet their deadlines.  

When Rich moved to Harrisburg, while working for the AP, each evening he had to fax to Philadelphia all the stories the staff produced by the end of the day for the next day's afternoon newspapers. Again, this process consumed a lot of his time. This was the 1970s. Later, the bureaus had CRTs on which to write their stories (for all the geeks out there, translation: Cathode-ray tube). This type of monitor uses streams of electrons that activate dots or pixels on the screen to create a full image. Remember those big, heavy, deep monitors, usually glowed green font? 

During this time, wire service reporters covering stories in the field used pay phones. Cell phones were not invented yet. When a story broke, they had to make sure they knew where the pay phone was and beat the competing reporters to the phone to call in the story. Losing the play, meaning having the competitor's story make it into print instead of yours, could break your career. Sometimes, in anticipation of a big story breaking, some reporters would unscrew the mouth piece and carry it with them to reserve a pay phone!

Next came the TRS-80 from Radio Shack, a.k.a. Trash-80. I had to Google this portable PC because I had not heard of it before. It would send three lines at a time and Rich said he would watch each one of his stories closely to make certain they went through. "Because if the cursor went backwards," Rich said, "that indicated a bad phone connection, and you would have to start all over again and resend it."

In 1982, right after Rich got his AP TRS-80, he arrived home one evening just moments after a small plane had crashed into a house three doors down from where he lived! He raced to the end of his street to see what had happened. He talked to people milling in the street, then from home, typed up his story into the TRS-80 and transmitted it via a so-called acoustic connection via phone to the Philadelphia bureau. This connection involved placing the phone handset into two rubber cups connected to the TRS-80. The story was thus quickly transmitted to the rest of the state and nation.

"In those days, it was the 'Marines of Journalism', " said Rich. "You had to be fast and accurate."

The transfer of paper to electronics happened over a span of 20 years, 1960-1980's. The 1990's seemed to be dedicated to the Internet. "The Internet changed everyone's role," Rich said. "It turned everyone into a wire reporter."

People went to websites for their information. People looked constantly on the web and deadlines became every minute instead of twice a day. Twitter arrived with 140 characters and this challenge has left audiences with smaller attention spans. "We don't have the luxury to explain in depth messages," Rich said.

Rich Kirkpatrick has led such a full life as a writer and reporter and member of the PennDOT communications team. Before Rich retired, Steve Chizmar, head of the Bureau of Innovations and former PennDOT Press Secretary, asked Rich to return as an annuitant. Rich continued writing stories for PennDOT. He can add another piece to the constantly changing communications arena and that is teleworking. Since the COVID-19, Rich has kept in contact electronically.

"This opportunity has allowed me to stay in touch with the wonderful people committed to delivering the very best transportation services in the most effective and efficient way possible in the face of an incredibly daunting revenue environment. What an honor to still be involved in that mission," Rich said.

This didn't sound like a dinosaur talking.

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