What is an AP Technician – Inside the AP

What is an AP Technician? – Inside the AP

I spent nearly 30 years as a Technician for the Associated Press. Known in the news industry as just the “AP Tech”, many people ask me what, exactly, did you do? Well, that’s not an easy question to answer. But I will try. However, in order to understand what an AP Tech does, you first have to understand what the Associated Press is.

Like many organizations that live in the “background”, most people have no idea what the AP is, or what it does, other than create the AP Wire. They remember the AP Teletype on WKRP in Cincinnati, or read an article, or see a picture slugged AP in their local newspaper. Never wondering, or at least not knowing, how that Photo or article got there. And, in today’s internet centric world, on various websites they read an article, watch a video, or look at photos that say they are from the “AP”, and don’t think about it.

First things first. AP is a Cooperative. It is owned by and exists for all the Newspapers that use it’s information. In fact, the newspapers are called “members” in AP Speak. Originally as a sideline, AP started delivering news to Radio & TV stations as well. Now that is a core function. The AP also supplies specialized information to thousands of other “customers” ranging from investment firms to corporate (and government) PR departments. AP also distributes data for various information companies leveraging it’s extensive and highly reliable global satellite systems.

Yes, Virginia, There actually is no single AP Wire. No, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of AP “Wires” (And, yes, they are called wires) delivering news and content for many different purposes, many very specialized. AP delivers the stocks for the stocks pages, sports scores for the sports pages, Breaking news for the front page, and the Dear Abby column for the entertainment section. All on separate “wires”. For radio stations AP delivered such things as a ready to read script for the news department (The AP Broadcast wire, which was different for each state, Ohio had four), as well as regional weather, and an Audio news feed every hour. TV Stations got that, plus more in depth news articles, video of breaking events, and remote access to a graphics library Graphicsbank, via an AP supplied computer that output broadcast video ready to use. with everything from a mugshot of a criminal, to an NHL Team Logo. Newspapers received pre-made graphics via a service called GraphicsNet, Both graphics services supplied everything from a mugshot of a criminal, to an NHL Team Logo, along with weather and other maps maps, and most of the other graphics you see in your newspaper. Newspapers received detailed sports data on a separate wire called Sportstats, and stock market data and tables via several services (wires). Ever call a newspaper’s special phone number to get stock updates? While outdated now, this was very popular in the 80′s & 90′s. That robotic voice you heard came from a dedicated Computer at the newspaper installed and maintained by the AP, and a service called Stock Quote Hotline. We delivered Sports scores to Stadium scoreboards as well as Sports bars via a service called Sportsticker. AP Delivers financial information both that they generate, and from third parties to hundreds of investment firms, brokerages, banks and even insurance companies. And, if you remember, not too long ago, that scrolling news feed on a cable system channel, that came from several different CATV wires (at least one for each state) as well as a special service called NewsPlus that put used an on site AP Computer to generate those pages and supply the video.

AP Generates, and moves, a LOT of information in virtually every form there is. While many of these wires are generated automatically by dedicated computers at the data centers in New York, New Jersey, and Kansas City, many had their own editorial staff (called a desk) devoted to writing and feeding information to just that service. AP even had a complete broadcast studio in Washington DC to create videos, and the on the hour newscasts for broadcasters.

3.4 Meter Satellite Dish at WLIO, Lima Ohio

3.4 Meter Satellite Dish at WLIO, Lima Ohio

Before the internet took over, all of this information was carried on an extensive data network. From connecting all the AP Bureaus in the world together, delivering that data to newspapers and broadcast stations, and even making sure a reporter in the field could send his pictures and text back to the AP for editing and distribution. In 1981 AP started an ambitious plan to reduce it’s use of expensive private telephone circuits between all these places, and rapidly created what was then the largest private satellite data network the world had seen. Within 2 years AP Satellite dishes had sprouted at newspapers (and from there telephone circuits delivered the data to local broadcast stations and users). The AP Bureaus were all connected together (networked) first with proprietary standards over leased phone lines, then T-1′s between them, and on to DSL and beyond. AP was continuously updating and modifying to use the latest communications technology, and try out the latest devices and methods to keep everyone connected. AP had laptops before the world had even heard of them (Teleram), was using dialup in the 70′s (300baud!). At the AP Data centers in New Jersey, and Kansas City Missouri, as well as at the AP Headquarters in New York, the technology advanced through virtually every DEC computer model made running the AP’s own operating system, and eventually to VAX systems and clusters – again running custom applications.

So, you still are asking, if you read this far, what does an AP Technician do? Well, for a start, An AP tech installs and maintains all of the equipment used to deliver this data. They maintain satellite dishes of various kinds, receivers and RF equipment, computers, processors, formatters and interfaces. At every member, station or customer that AP supplies there is equipment. Starting in the early days with lots of various mechanical Teletype equipment, to the electronic world of computers and networks, one thing AP Techs do is go to the members, install and maintain the equipment (and often teach the members how to use it), and, especially, fix it quickly when it breaks. Woe be it to the person who tells the editor of a major newspaper he can’t publish the sports pages that night cause there was a “problem with the AP feed”.

AP Equipment racks at Dayton Daily News

AP Equipment racks at Dayton Daily News

A newspaper may have dozens, or even hundreds of different pieces of AP equipment. It all normally starts with a 10 foot satellite dish, which seems to always be on the roof – and no, not the main roof, but “that other one over there”. Connected to that dish is at least one rack full of receivers, demultiplexers, and data conversion equipment, oh my. Often there are 2-3 of these racks. They are called, naturally, the “AP Rack”, which was important when someone called in the middle of the night and said “we’re not getting any news”. To avoid spending 24 hours a day “on the road” AP Techs are able to fix about 90% of the problems over the phone, or find a work-around so it is at least not a dire emergency. They do this primarily by knowing all the equipment intimately, maintaining technical standards, and being, in all modesty, quite good at explaining how to do things over the phone to someone who is often very non-technical. And, yes, the AP technician works the phone as well as a screwdriver and steering wheel.

It is also easy to see, the AP Tech has to be well versed and knowledgeable in a large variety of different technologies, sometimes state of the art, and sometimes, especially at the chronically broke broadcast stations, ancient and archaic. Often a problem was buried deep within the member’s systems. Unlike your typical consumer “help line” the buck stopped with the Tech. It had to be fixed wherever the problem was, and whether on the phone, or after a 100 mile trip – through a blizzard and three feet of snow, in the dark, without shoes, to the site.

The Associated Press was also tasked with being one of the technical arms of the publishing industry. From being heavily involved in R&D, then to not so much, and finally not at all, many emerging technologies were pioneered and implemented at Newspapers by or with the AP. That is also a function of the AP Technical staff. Over the years from Photo typesetting, to computerized page layout and ready to print advertising (AP Adsend). Photo transmission and technology… Oh yes, Photos…

Photos have always been a special thing with the AP. From the first electronically transmitted “wirephoto” (a 1935 plane crash in the Adirondack Mountains) through digital darkrooms and digital cameras, the AP has been at the cutting edge of photography. Often dragging the newspaper industry “kicking and screaming” into new technology. Those early wirephoto machines morphed into several generations of better, quicker, and higher quality wirephoto technologies. That culminated in the AP Laserphoto machine, designed by a collaboration between the AP and MIT, the machines – receivers, transmitters, and portable transmitters – were built at the AP technical center in New Jersey, by AP Technicians.

The laserphoto was fairly new on the scene when I arrived at AP in 1979. That was quickly joined by the AP Digital darkroom, which enabled (very basic) digital editing of photos and then transmission on the analog wirephoto network. The first digital darkroom was very expensive, and limited to several AP Bureaus, however that was to change.

Starting in 1991, the AP caused a revolution in the newsrooms and pressrooms as it rolled out the AP Leafdesk. A complete custom digital photo editing and manipulation system. With a proprietary high speed network connecting the file server and editing stations (including Apple Macintoshes with an interface card), the system received photos from the satellite network at high speed (1 Megabit), and after allowing for editing, could output those photos in any format the Newspaper needed, from a regular photo, to digitally direct to their press. This was literally the system that brought color photos to pages other than page one, as it made it easier, and more trouble free, to do. AP Techs installed this equipment, designed and installed the networks at Newspapers, trained users on how to use it, and maintained it. A lot of effort, training and advice was expended by AP Techs in getting the leafdesk to work with the Newspapers existing publishing equipment, and enhancing the quality all the way to the pressroom, AP Techs also helped develop refinements to the system, and did a major amount of “debugging” of what was, for then, very extensive software, running on a highly proprietary system.

In 2001, the Leafdesk started being replaced by the APServer. An off the shelf IBM Server running Windows 2000, and doing everything the Leafdesk could do, plus more, using the newspaper’s existing network and work stations, the APServer was the beginning of Commercial Off the Shelf equipment instead of our proprietary stuff. It also leveraged the fact that many newspapers had installed and/or upgraded in house networks as part of the Year 2000 remediation (which was VERY real).

OK, What was the question? What did I, as an AP Tech do?). As one of approximately 360 technical people in the AP’s communications department worldwide- I did all of the above. All of this equipment, all the networks, the equipment at the end users – sometimes quite a bit – and all the bits and pieces that were necessary to gather and write the news, from cameras & laptops, to software and telephones, was installed, maintained, and sometimes designed and debugged by AP Technicians. From the sink in the bureau’s break room to the backup generator in the parking lot, installing a satellite dish, or troubleshooting a network, if it was technical, and it needed doing, the AP Tech was the one who was called. In Ohio, it was me, or one of my 8 co-workers. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (including weekends and holidays) we kept the news flowing, the wheels turning, and, especially, the newspaper’s managing editor happy. (oh, the stories, maybe soon). And with AP members and customers spread out throughout Ohio, the wheels turning is meant literally. Personally, in my 30 years, I drove about 1.6 Million Miles for the AP – That’s according to my expense reports. Not much for a truck driver, but remember the actual work to be done didn’t start till we got there! I think I have been to most McDonald’s, and slept in most of the Holiday Inns, in this state. OK, A slight exaggeration.

AP Techs also wire offices and install, setup and maintain in-house networks, and telephone systems, They fix tape recorders and office chairs, eradicate computer viruses, and teach AP Editors how to use the software. They develop and implement backup and emergency procedures, and are there 24/7 when those procedures and systems were called for.. AP Techs install extensive amounts of equipment and support the reporters at events from the Olympics (Where we strung over 40 miles of fiber optic cables), to hurricane Katrina (where we provided shelter, kept the generators running, and scrounged things to eat). Ap Techs have been behind the scenes keeping things working from wars and riots to floods. Naturally, all 360 of us did not go to every one of these things, or participate, but we all could, and had to be prepared to do so.

To borrow a phrase, it was not just a job, it was an adventure. From learning about and implementing a large array of technology, to being “in the moment” – either physically, or inside the information loop – for breaking news events large and small. Answering calls of distress, solving myriad problems, and the feeling of satisfaction when you enable something to happen, a newspaper to get published, or that news story to get told. Every day was different, and, sometimes, every hour of that day.

It was about the year 2000 – OK Actually in the year 2000, thanks to the Y2K “Bug” – that the news landscape changed quickly and considerably. That change eventually led to my having to leave the AP, but that’s another story. Up until 2000, things progressed as they had. While the technologies had changed immensely, both the types of products, and the end users remained as they always had. News, Photos, video, audio, and graphics created by the AP, and delivered to newspapers and Radio & TV Stations around the country, and around the world, for publication, or broadcast. And, as you will see, it was still the AP Tech’s job (and mission) to enable gathering and creating all that content, and to make sure it got to the ultimate destination, intact and ready to use.

When I arrived in 1979, much of the work was mechanical, maintaining the thousands of teletype machines that were in Ohio. A typical Radio station had one single M-15 Teletype receiving one of the Radio wires at 50 baud. That copy was formatted by AP so the newsman, or DJ could take it right off the machine into the studio and read it on the air (rip and read) if he wanted to. A small newspaper might have three M-20 teletypes (national news, state news, sports)., at 56.8 baud along with three reperforators (M-20 RPE) which created punched paper tape. That tape was then feed (normally) into the photo off-setter which generated the copy (slicks) to be pasted right into a page.

A large newspaper often had 4-5 M-20 teletype machines with associated M-20 Reperforators. Common was national news, state news, sports, and an editorial wire. The process to print the paper was the same, big or small, except in scale. A larger newspaper would also likely have a High speed reperforator which punched out the nightly markets data (on another separate wire at a blistering 1050 Baud) to be run through the typesetter.

Every one of those Teletype machines (thousands) had to be serviced, normally every 6 months. While they were pretty reliable, and we were careful with our preventative maintenance, they still broke once in a while. We called these 6 month servicing routining. For 9 of us to get all the machines done entailed going on the road for about 3 months twice a year. We spent the weekdays in motels, the weekends at home, and ate a lot of fast food. Of course, in between routine visits we had to fix what was broken, install what needed installing, and everything else that needed doing. About every 3 years, each machine would be taken back to our shop to be completely rebuilt – during the 3 months between routine seasons.

Some large newspapers (about 25-30 in Ohio) however were taking AP data digitally right into their computer systems. This was relatively new and called Datastream and Datafeatures. These were 1200 baud circuits. There was a separate basically Datastream circuit for each state. Since it was “high speed”, all of the previously separate “wires” were mixed into this one circuit. At the newspaper we had a box (microprocessor based) that sorted this all out and delivered it to the newspapers computer system (often a PDP-11) for use in their text editing system (often ATEX). This was the beginnings of the “electronic age” and by 1986 virtually all of those Teletype machines had bitten the dust in favor of what we called DCI – direct computer input.

The radio stations meanwhile, had a long run with printers. Radio stations are notoriously under funded, so technology is acquired slow (often at garage sales). The M-15′s were replaced with a dot matrix printer called an Extel (The first use of the intel 4004 microprocessor), starting around 1986. The extels, however, required a lot of maintenance, so we spent a year testing other printers till settling on the Okidata M-92 (and eventually M-320) which had soon replaced the Extels. Eventually, around 1988, AP created a custom program called Newsdesk. This ran on a PC, and brought Radio station newsrooms into at least the 20th century, and electronic editing. It still took a while as the radio stations did not have PC’s, and couldn’t afford them (in a break from tradition, AP provided the software, but not the computer). A lot of interesting time was spent making newsdesk work on some VERY questionable computers. The newsdesk also conincided with the introduction of a new, high speed “broadcast wire” called Newspower 1200. Running at 1200 baud (fast for the day) This worked just like Datastream, except it was for radio & TV stations.

Interestingly, many radio station stuck with the printer (since we provided and maintained it) for a long time, and received Newspower 1200 on it. There were regional Newspower 1200 circuits, which, again like Datastream, carried a number of different wires. A custom AP built interface inside the Okidata M-92 printer would sort out (demultiplexed, or selected) the content and formatted it so the M-92 printer mechanism could keep up.

TV Stations were a mixed bag. While some used printers, others had their own computer systems, and took our high speed wires, starting with datastream, and eventually Newspower 1200.

A newspaper would also have a Laserphoto Machine churning out pictures at a rate of one every 8-10 minutes. A color picture had to be sent in three separations, which took 30 minutes. Unbelievably, even at that rate, a LOT of photos could be transmitted in a day! Laserphoto was five years old then. The machine was complex. It received an analog signal, and using a laser optical system, reproduced the photo on a special heat developed photographic paper. The machine also had a processor inside that used heat to develop the paper. The result was a high (photographic) quality print suitable for publishing.

As I said earlier, originally all this data was delivered over many, many leased private telephone circuits. From Slow speed circuits using a Lenkurt 25 carrier system, to separate circuits for each high speed wire, they went everywhere, and often broke. A lot of our time “back then” was spent working with the telephone company to get these circuits fixed when they broke. A special problem was the photo circuits which carried the Laserphoto signals. The slightest “glitch” would ruin a print, and the phone company people were, of course, only used to voice. It was a long, long road to learn what caused the quality problems, and then, one by one, having to “educate” the phone company techs (while on the telephone) on how to fix them.

In 1982, the AP started trying to get away from these leased circuits. Not only was the cost astounding, but, as mentioned there were some special problems that arose often. To this end, the AP leased a Satellite transponder, built Ground uplink stations in New Jersey, and Kansas City, and proceeded to install satellite dishes and receivers at newspapers. The setup was a 3 meter dish, usually on the roof, and a receiver rack along with associated equipment. All of the AP services were multiplexed onto the satellite carrier. In this way, the landlines could be disconnected. In one year, the AP had over 1200 3-meter ground stations, (including 105 in Ohio) and two uplink sites. However, from the newspaper “Sat Site”, local telephone circuits were still needed to connect the data with whatever radio & tv stations, or other customers there were in that City.

Radio & TV Stations did not normally have the room or even the support staff for a “big dish”. Additionally, the 3-meter dish required a significant mount, which we required the member to pay for and install. AS previously mentioned, most broadcast stations are not rolling in the dough. So, a different solution needed to be found. That solution ended up being a small 1 foot dish and receiver made by Equatorial Communications. To enable the small size, the system used a new for then technology – spread spectrum. These dishes were small and lightweight, and could be mounted just about anywhere, and were.

Soon, we started installing the M-SAT dishes everywhere, and divorcing from the phone company right & left.

When I arrived, most of the news was still delivered via telephone lines, and printed on Teletype machines and equipment. When I left, it was delivered via satellite, internet, and to computers. It was a long, fascinating, and very rewarding journey.

At several “hub” bureaus, such as Columbus, Ohio where I was, there were additional computer systems. These were used not only to run local editing terminals, but to format and deliver the data on the wires. In Columbus, as of 1979, we had A Hendrix 3400 text editing system, run by a PDP-8e. This was connected to our about 12 CRT editing stations via a pdp-11 “controller”. The 3400 had a huge rotating drum storage system that could hold 2 megabytes of data. Our bureau also had another computer a PDP-8I. This computer did many things, including generating all those 50 and 56.8 baud circuits. It also had the task of doing H&J (hyphenation and justification) for the slow speed newspaper wires (which were called TTS, or teletypsetter). This inserted all the control characters that were necessary, so the newspaper could print it out on the typesetter, and end up with one column of type. At the time computers were expensive, and this was a task the AP had taken on to do for them.

Columbus also had a special wire. Compuserve (you remember Compuserve) was here in town, and the AP had an editor (desk) that created a special wire just for the on-line service. This was relayed to us from New York via a high speed TDM system. To get it to the Compuserve data center, we had a pair of VERY EXPENSIVE Paradyne 9600 Baud modems – state of the art for the time. Now, don’t tell anyone, but while Compuserve thought they were getting the news at 9600 baud, It really came to us at 1200 baud…

To be continued…

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