Where Were You on New Year’s Eve, Y2K?

Posted on December 31, 2009

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Remember Y2K? Can that possibly have been 10 years ago? An entire decade? Today we are on the cusp of Y2KX, 2010, another new decade.

Where were you, and what were you doing, on New Year’s Eve, 1999? It was the end of a millennium, and everywhere there was trepidation and anticipation.

I was working at the Baltimore Sun on Calvert Street on the evening of Dec. 31, 1999. I was the makeup editor that night, shuttling back and forth from the newsroom to the composing room.

Nearly the entire news staff, from Editor John Carroll and Managing Editor Bill Marimow down to the greenest reporter, was in the building or out covering a story. The top brass wanted to celebrate Y2K at the newspaper. Everyone wanted to be present if there was big news to report at the dawning of the millennium. News Editor Paul Moore was bouncing on adrenaline. “I’ve got Y2K fever,” he told me about 10:30 p.m. Publisher Michael Waller, an old-school newsman, was chatting with veteran printers in the composing room.

At 11 p.m., the engineering staff turned on the big new generator out back. The Sun would not be without power on Y2K, no matter what.

Those were the glory days. I was a card-carrying member of the Baltimore-Washington Newspaper Guild, with a reasonably well-paying job. I was solidly and safely middle class.

Midnight came and went. Nothing happened. No news. The newsroom was all but deserted by 1 a.m., Jan. 1, 2000. Quiet as a tomb. We monitored the news wires for a couple more hours, but Mr. Waller had already decreed that The Sun would not be publishing a Y2K Extra. There was nothing to report.

None of the people named in this post is still at The Sun 10 years later. The majority of the reporters and editors on hand that night have moved on, one way or another. All of the printers are gone. The Sun converted to full pagination early in the decade, creating the pages on computer in the newsroom. The printers — masters of hot type and cold type — are history.

John Carroll soon departed to become editor of the Los Angeles Times. In the tradition of journalism, he took a select few of The Sun’s best and brightest reporters with him. Bill Marimow was promoted to editor, but before long, he was sacked by a new publisher. Marimow landed for a time as managing editor at National Public Radio (NPR), and brought a few reporters with him. A handful of Sun reporters, led by Fraser Smith, moved to WYPR, the Baltimore public radio station. Marimow later returned to the Philadelphia Inquirer, site of his two Pulitzer Prices years earlier, as editor. Naturally, a few Sun alumni mostly those who followed Marimow from the Inquirer to the Sun previously, are now back home at the Inquirer.  (It’s now what you know, it’s who you know.) Many Sun staffers departed in the almost continuous r0unds of downsizing and buyouts. Some are now simply unemployed.

Was Y2K hysteria a hoax? It created lots of work for computer programmers, and sold zillions worth of generators, firearms, emergency food and water supplies. Or did the frantic rewriting of computer software prevent a worldwide collapse? Who can say?

The first 10 years of the new millennium have been a decade of terrorism, war, dislocation, and financial crisis. But also a decade of advances in medical research and treatment; relentless  digital innovation and online social networking; and progress for millions of people in China, India, and other developing countries.

Who could possibly predict what might happen next?

— Bernie Hayden

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