Join 3,512 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


More like a Magic 8-Ball than a round slide rule
August 4, 2011 7:55 AM   Subscribe

How to build a newsroom time machine. Some pessimists predicted ALL ON PAPER would be an exercise in futility. It’s proven to be a lesson in humility – for both the student journalists struggling with the old tech for the first time, and for the veteran journalists trying to recall how it all worked a few decades ago. A college paper makes an issue the old-fashioned way.

[stolen from elfgirl's G+]
posted by shakespeherian (52 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
What an excellent project. It always amazes me when someone doesn't know the history of their own field. Or, in the case of some of these students, any at all.
posted by DU at 8:04 AM on August 4, 2011


I want to read this but I'm on deadline today... Too busy sorting through the 1000+ digital photos I took at the folk festival on the weekend. Take THAT film cameras.
posted by Brodiggitty at 8:06 AM on August 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Showing the writers their heavily marked-up copy was more gratifying than sending back a digital doc with largely invisible changes...

News rooms don't use revision control?? Sweet jebus.
posted by DU at 8:06 AM on August 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


I wonder if the young woman wore the Journey t-shirt on purpose.
posted by griphus at 8:07 AM on August 4, 2011


“They’re not broken,” I replied. “Manual typewriters didn’t have a number 1 key. They used a lower-case L instead.”

“Seriously?” asked the first reporter.


Wait til they find out about exclamation points!
posted by theodolite at 8:09 AM on August 4, 2011 [7 favorites]


I pointed to the lever that would propel the carriage back to the left, while the gears inside would simultaneously ratchet the paper to the next line.

When I was learning to type, that was called "throwing the carriage" and you were supposed to slam it hard as you could so that you could continue typing on the next line as quickly as possible.
posted by octothorpe at 8:13 AM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


While there's a lot not to miss about those days, I did the feeling of actually crafting physical objects together to make a paper. There was a level of craftsmanship that's much rarer these days.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:17 AM on August 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm a Reuters journalist and I love hearing this 'old newsroom stuff'.

About 30 years ago, they had a conveyor belt around the Reuters HQ in London which reporters could pin urgent handwritten 'snaps', which would work their way round to the subs who would write them onto the news wire. Lots of tales involving drunken mishaps involving said conveyor.

Even today though, new journalists are shocked at what they have to use. For instance, the main editing system until a few months ago was an emulator for a terminal system called System 77, which dated from 1986. You had to learn whole volumes of command codes. The command button was the pause-break key -- laptops these days don't even have that!

Occasionally you'd have to search the system for a story, and if it didn't find it, it'd just show you loads of stories from the 80s or early 90s instead. While it was slow and clunky, it very rarely broke down and it outlasted a lot of journalists who used it.
posted by TheAlarminglySwollenFinger at 8:18 AM on August 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


That group photo would have looked better if they all put on ridiculously tight t-shirts.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:18 AM on August 4, 2011


Confession: When I got my manual typewriter I probably spent like ten minutes trying to figure out what I was supposed to use for the 1.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:20 AM on August 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Wow. I had to take a class in this sort of pasteup back in college, but I knew it was on the way out - when I got drafted into layout on the school paper, it was all laid out on a four or five year old Mac.
posted by egypturnash at 8:23 AM on August 4, 2011


Up hill, both ways. And they liked it!
posted by XMLicious at 8:24 AM on August 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is excellent! < oldguy > But I would have really liked to see them learn how to compose their paper using movable lead type and the California job case, like I did in high school in the 70s. < /oldguy >
posted by The Deej at 8:29 AM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


My first job was at an old local newspaper, where I was the resident computer whiz kid. I was really excited when we upgraded to photoshop 4. But I still needed to learn how to use the linotype machine and the hot waxer.
posted by Jon_Evil at 8:31 AM on August 4, 2011


The thing with the lowercase-L for 1 substitution reminds me of when my family got our Commodore VIC-20 computer, and enlisted my aunt to help type in one of those long program listings from the back of BYTE magazine. The speed advantage of her touch-typing was quickly negated by having to go through and replace all her 'l's with 1s.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 8:31 AM on August 4, 2011 [10 favorites]


Pfft.

Not impressed until these "scribes" break out stones and chisels.
posted by notyou at 8:33 AM on August 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is so scary for me as a college paper editor.

However, not as scary as the Musalman...
posted by papayaninja at 8:34 AM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


To mimic an ’80s-era Varityper, we set up a single iMac, keyed in all the stories in single columns, and ran them out on a laser printer. Then the paste-up artists trimmed and glued them to larger pieces of paper.

That's what I actually used to do in the late 1980s with my own stories for the uni mag I edited. I used to give other people's stuff to the printing people who turned them all into photo-tyseset columns, but to give myself more time I wrote my own bits on the family Macintosh, took them into uni on a floppy, printed them out in one of the student labs, and then cut them up from the printouts.

But the typeset columns were better. They were on stiff-enough paper that you could peel them off and reposition them without any problem, but if you did that with a laser-printer page the paper would tear or the toner would get tiny wrinkles that made the letters look greyer. I would try my best to salvage it, though, because reprinting meant walking halfway across campus to the lab with the laser-printer.
posted by rory at 8:41 AM on August 4, 2011


photo-tyseset columns

Even in the digital age we have typos that can't be fixed once it's gone to press.
posted by rory at 8:43 AM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


The greatest machine I ever saw was a "old-timey" type-setter they had refurbished for the print shop at the Ontario College of Art back around '85. You typed your words at one end and the machine cast the frickin' letters from pots of molten lead and slid them down little shoots into rows that were assembled into pages. I only saw it once and was a little overwhelmed. I'd love to know it it's still there.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:51 AM on August 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


(I probably didn't give enough context there: you could peel off the typeset columns from the A3 layout page you had rubber-cemented them onto.)
posted by rory at 8:52 AM on August 4, 2011


When I was in junior high (mid-late 80s) and started to have essays and whatnot for homework, my mom got her dad's typewriter for me to use. It was probably from the 40s, a hulking thing, incredibly heavy. Typing every key took incredible effort, which made for some slow going. Plus, the first time I used up the ribbon, I discovered that replacements were no longer available...so I had to rewind and reink it myself. Fun! Plus oh the wite-out...and I was not a particularly good typist. Getting to use mom's electric typewriter (probably late 70s) was kinda exciting, because the keys were so much easier and IIRC it had the wite-out keys.

And then in high school I stayed with my other grandfather for two weeks one summer, and he had this brand-new typewriter that had built-in memory, so it could store a couple of lines, you could check for typos before printing to the page! It was kept in his study, which is where I was sleeping while I was there, and I loved writing stories on it.

All of which made the computer labs in college (early 90s Macs) seem entirely magical.
posted by epersonae at 8:52 AM on August 4, 2011


The copy editor position on a paper used to be called "the slot" because the reporters and their editor all worked at a big round table with a slot cut into one side. The editor sat more or less at the center of the circle so he was within arms reach of everyone around the rim and they could hand pages back and forth.
posted by Naberius at 9:04 AM on August 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Heh. I still have my old proportion wheel, as well as type gauges and pica rulers. This actually sounds like a whole lot of fun.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:34 AM on August 4, 2011


They're missing several important details... like the processor for developing the typeset copy, and the waxer for waxing the backs of the copy and photos... and what about halftones? Ya gotta shoot halftones if the pics are gonna be printed...

I spent way too much college time lashing together a weekly paper back in the 70s; everything was old-style and then some. It required a lot more planning and discipline since nothing was easy to fix. This is a great project. Thanks for posting.

PS I keep a pica gauge and proportion wheel in my desk drawer, for old time's sake. And some day, I'd like to visit this place.
posted by kinnakeet at 9:34 AM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I worked on the last semester of my college newspaper and loved layout day. It was fun seeing what we could fit in and where. We did nit do the printing. I kept evey issue I worked on.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:45 AM on August 4, 2011


There are people who type "l" for "1" even these days: Google trends for 20l0 / 20ll.
posted by fings at 9:50 AM on August 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I hope they learned about the former importance of the "bus plunge" story. (previously)

Because that's one of those neat little trivia things that I think shows so much about how things used to be and how they aren't anymore. Also it's one of my favorite things I learned from Metafilter.

And despite it being a part of history, it's also one of those things that is deserving, by modern eyes, the according-to-the-article, oft-repeated phrase of “That’s totally fucked up!”
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:57 AM on August 4, 2011


They didn't even have access to a chemical darkroom at their college anymore? Did anyone think of calling the art department?

It's a pretty sad state of affairs if there's nobody doing traditional film photography at a school with twenty thousand undergraduates. Wow.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:09 AM on August 4, 2011


I was part of the last gasp of this world - too young and unskilled at the time to be a real member of the profession, but I sort of quasi-apprenticed a couple summers in high school for a printing company. They did a lot of mid-range publication work: industrial equipment catalogs and small circulation magazines for things like college alumni offices and horse breeding associations.

We had a couple women who ran photo typesetting machines at one end of the floor. They keyboarded copy from typescript and output it to chemically developed film in proper column widths, fonts, etc. Like the Linotype machines they replaced, these things were weird combinations of technology. A machine with a keyboard and a chemical processing system.

I worked in layout. We'd get the type from them on developed photo paper that smelled of weird chemicals and was sometimes still dripping. My job was to lay out two-page spreads on boards with blue pencils, run the strips of type through a waxer and lay them down on the page. Sometimes I'd need to add rules directly onto the board with a technical pen. Once my pages had been approved - type was in the right place, page numbers were correct, right caption under the right photo box, no misplaced rules, etc. etc. , they went to the strippers, whose job was to break one laid out board in black and white into different color separations that would ultimately be turned into different colored plates and printed.

At the time, the bigger shops that did mass market magazines and the like were already using computers to replace most of this work, but those were mainly dedicated systems that were way too expensive for our tier of the business. PCs were out there and getting more affordable, but they were still way too clunky for professional work. Nonetheless, it was obvious to me even at the time that this way of life was doomed.

All these jobs, the typesetters, layout, strippers, platemakers, were skilled blue collar work of the sort that doesn't really exist anymore. I'm pretty sure none of them had been to college, but they had good-paying jobs and respect that they were about to lose. I've often wondered since then whatever happened to those guys - especially the strippers, who were kind of the prima donnas of the shop because they had the most valuable skillset and they knew it. I'm guessing nobody's done that work in twenty years now.
posted by Naberius at 10:13 AM on August 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


You typed your words at one end and the machine cast the frickin' letters from pots of molten lead and slid them down little shoots into rows that were assembled into pages.

Sounds like a Linotype, or one of its competitors. I've never actually seen one that was operational; I'm told they're quite something. I'd be surprised if OSHA would let you run one anymore.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:14 AM on August 4, 2011


Fresh out of college back in 1982 I worked as an editorial assistant at a Hollywood trade paper. One day the editors forgot to include the "jump" for a page one story. The jump remained pinned to the bulletin board for a while until the editor, who knew he was on his way out, turned to his assistant editor and said, "Let's use that jump we forgot in tomorrow's paper. Except say, 'Continued from page 1, July 22.'" Well, they did and the editor was fired shortly afterwards.

My other favorite story is something that happened before I got there, so it is hearsay. But when I was there all the reporters had battered manual typewriters. They used to have new IBM electric typewriters but the publisher went to a screening of The Front Page and decided that's what a real newsroom sounded like. So she got rid of the electric typewriters and had them replaced by museum-era manuals.

At another magazine I spent hours devising a wrap that would be shaped like a wine bottle. It required lots of measuring and a lot of coding. I had a real feeling of accomplishment when it worked, though.
posted by Man-Thing at 10:14 AM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


On the carriage-return thing: Why is it that even some very, very old typewriters handle this automatically with a clever little slider switch while new ones are manual?
posted by odinsdream at 10:20 AM on August 4, 2011


I dunno ... needs more rubylith!!!
posted by kuppajava at 10:21 AM on August 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've often wondered since then whatever happened to those guys - especially the strippers, who were kind of the prima donnas of the shop because they had the most valuable skillset and they knew it. I'm guessing nobody's done that work in twenty years now.

I worked at high printer in the early '90s that was going through that phase. The men and women who had been stripping for 15-20 years and were able to jump onto computers were great. Some couldn't and it wasn't pretty. Gradually those guys would leave and move on to another place that still did stripping, going to smaller and smaller markets.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:22 AM on August 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Kadin2048: "They didn't even have access to a chemical darkroom at their college anymore? Did anyone think of calling the art department?
"

At my college, our art department had a strict ban on photography classes, because they felt that it infringed on the integrity of the department, and didn't fit into the college's liberal arts philosophy, which is the same reason why they axed the engineering and communications programs in the 1970s.

Still, we did have a handful of darkrooms in various states of working order. The photo club kept one fully operational. There was another in the Physics department that was used for storage, but could probably be reactivated with minimal effort, and I believe that it was the same way for the newspaper's darkroom.

So, I guess that I am surprised that there wasn't an old darkroom sitting unused somewhere on the campus. Seems like abandoned darkrooms are practically a fixture of college campuses... However, the absence of a film photography curriculum doesn't shock me at all.
posted by schmod at 10:28 AM on August 4, 2011


Needs more fedoras (and more drinking on the job).
posted by Jahaza at 10:57 AM on August 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


It seems like the common reaction of the students is that it made their work seem more like art, more communal, and more difficult (but, as a trade-off, more rewarding).

I guess that a word processor program (free), blogging platforms (free), digital cameras (120 or so for a decent one), and photo editing software (probably the most expensive part, if you don't want to cut corners or pirate software) makes this stuff so easy and cheap that, as is currently the dilemma facing journalism as a profession, anyone can do it.

I'm in library school right now, and I've always wanted a month where I could run (or attempt to run) a small lending library with nothing more than a card catalog and a reference shelf. I think there's stuff every profession could learn through taking away computers for a bit.

Sort of what Sherry Turkle talks about in Simulation and its Discontents.
posted by codacorolla at 11:10 AM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


My job was to lay out two-page spreads on boards with blue pencils

Ah, non-repro blue, how I miss you.

Sometimes I'd need to add rules directly onto the board

... probably using a Rapidograph Technical Pen!

All these jobs, the typesetters, layout, strippers, platemakers, were skilled blue collar work of the sort that doesn't really exist anymore.

Oh, we're still out here. I ran a Quadex, was paid well for what I did and was treated like royalty. Those machines tended to intimidate everyone, with their obscure codes and enormous, noisy machines. It was great work and I loved every second. Most old typographers I know ended up in totally unrelated work, if they found work at all.
posted by kinnakeet at 11:39 AM on August 4, 2011


Back in 1994-95, I was on my high school newspaper and we did it the old fashioned way. Pasted up layout, sent to the printers. Pica poles.

The smell of rubber cement is still a turn on to this day.
posted by inturnaround at 11:55 AM on August 4, 2011


"especially the strippers, who were kind of the prima donnas of the shop because they had the most valuable skillset and they knew it. I'm guessing nobody's done that work in twenty years now."

Eh, I never found stripping all that difficult. I took printing three hours a day for three years in high school (and I've worked in the business in, one form or another, for 25 years now). We learned how to do layout and design, typesetting (lead and paper), stripping, plate making, press operation (letterpress and offset), bindery etc... Anyway, we used to still make plates the old timey way at work until relatively recently. Now we're all digital to plate so it's pretty much down to just mounting and proofing in pre-press. It's kind of sad to see the craft disappear. Who will print our pamphlets after the apocalypse when there are no more computers and interwebs?
posted by MikeMc at 12:00 PM on August 4, 2011


Yeah, I spent a lot of time doing photography and manual pasteup on our high school newspaper up til about 1975. We typed copy on cheap newsprint pages, doublespaced, with typesetter's markup. The phototype shop sent back galleys on photo paper. I recall spending a lot of time writing headlines to "copyfit," picking a type size and word length to fit a slot. I recall we had a big list of synonyms for common headline words, sorted by length in ems. Oh I wish I could find a copy of it. I remember doing a lot of effects like knockouts and overprints, using multiple pasteup overlays. The effects were all done at the printing shop when they made negatives to burn the plates. I remember our paper's print run was at the end of shift after the local university newspaper ran. They always used a spot color, so we got to use it free if we didn't want to pay for a press washup. We never quite knew what color it would be until the day we were ready to print. Sometimes it would be some awful color that didn't work, I'll never forget when we were expecting a dark color like Royal Blue, then they switched to yellow, all our graphics were basically invisible. So once in a while, we'd pay for a washup and pick our own spot color.

I will do a little self-link, I wrote a blog article about a print job I did back in 1974 in my high school's newspaper lab. It was even cheaper than usual since I didn't use phototypesetting, I just used an IBM typewriter with a carbon ribbon. With a little Chartpak press-on type and some darkroom work, it wasn't too bad for a 16 year old kid. The materials were really cheap, once the high school set up a darkroom and full layout facilities, everything from a waxer to the darkroom, even huge double-width tabloid light tables.

I put a link in that story to the Drawger Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies but alas the site took it down. I found a partial snapshot in the Internet Wayback Machine, but alas they failed to capture more than a small group of the dozens of tools that I recognized from the pasteup era.
posted by charlie don't surf at 2:21 PM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


fings, a good part of that might be bad OCR.
posted by wachhundfisch at 2:43 PM on August 4, 2011


This needs more booze. And tobacco. And vests. And dames. And snappy patter, see?
posted by Smedleyman at 3:28 PM on August 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


especially the strippers, who were kind of the prima donnas of the shop because they had the most valuable skillset and they knew it. I'm guessing nobody's done that work in twenty years now.

Less than fifteen, and basic stripping was fairly easy (although the advanced save-your-ass stuff wasn't.) The computer programs (especially the specialized ones for, e.g., forms or securities design) were the hard part. But that was mostly bad UI.

Sounds like a Linotype, or one of its competitors. I've never actually seen one that was operational; I'm told they're quite something. I'd be surprised if OSHA would let you run one anymore.

You can see a working Linotype machine at the Balto. Museum of Industry.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 4:33 PM on August 4, 2011


There is still time to sign up for Linotype University on Sept 25 - Oct 2 in Denmark, Iowa. You can learn how to operate and maintain hot lead Linotype machines, and do your own hands-on typesetting projects. They have more than a dozen working Linotype machines.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:00 PM on August 4, 2011


Yeah, this is cool. A handful of things left over from the end of that era—the double-wide tilted light table, a giant ruled paper cutter, a big metal ruler, a gigantic broadsheet-size scanner that only had SCSI output—still had a home in my college-newspaper office when I got there. It was probably coming up on at least 10 years since any of that had really been used for anything; the paper was around the point of starting to phase out its old iMacs and PowerMac G2s and G3s in favor of G4s, if that gives you a sense of the (fairly recent) time period.

It was neat to have that old stuff there, to have that sense that there's more to this whole enterprise than a newbie necessarily knows anything about; the old tools were supplemented by at least a half-decade's worth of old "overheard in the newsroom" quotes, clippings, original hand-drawn cartoons and illustrations... In the years since then, the newspaper has moved to a new office in a new building, custom-built and wired to meet its needs, which is pretty great—but the paper definitely parted ways with most of the old tools and old wall "decoration" in the process.

It's like what happened during a recent intraoffice move at work, during which I saw still another SCSI scanner go to the dumpsters and took possession of two glass drums from an old drum scanner. They're on my desk now, by the window, topped with blown-glass orbs and gradually filling up with bottlecaps from my daily bottle of water, and I bet just about everyone who sees them just thinks they're some sort of abstract art...
posted by limeonaire at 5:04 PM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I never did any printing, but I was a wonder with a xerox machine, scissors and scotch invisible tape.
posted by gjc at 6:14 PM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


oh, my goodness! I worked as a proofreader/typesetter for a fairly large newspaper, from 1962-1982. This was an era which went from hot type to phototype, more changes every year, In 1962, typesetting was done on a teletype machine which punched holes in a paper tape which was run through another machine which translated it into hot type.
Some time in the 70's we started typesetting on electric typewriters on regular paper, which was run through an Optical Recognition scanner which fed it into a room=sized computer which spit out type onto photo=sensitive paper, which was then run through a developing tank, where it was grabbed up and waxed, cut up and pasted down. I got to do a little of everything, which was fun, I must admit.
I left shortly before the composing room was eliminated entirely, and did a little of everything before I finally retired, but nothing was as interesting.
posted by ljoct at 1:51 AM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've often wondered since then whatever happened to those guys - especially the strippers, who were kind of the prima donnas of the shop because they had the most valuable skillset and they knew it.

I did the whole workflow, and I agree that stripping was the preferred task. Not sure if it was because it was the most valuable skill, but I think the cachet may have been that it was a lot cleaner than the rest of the printshop workflow.

-Darkroom: Stinky chemicals, slimy hands (NO WE DIDN'T WEAR NO EFFIN' RUBBER GLOVES!)

-Stripping: Masking sheets ("clay coated"!), dry negatives, exacto knife, opaquing fluid, tape. Ahhhhhhh, I can do this in a dress shirt without an apron!

-Platemaking: Carbon arc lighting that required messing with welding rods (don't talk to me about pulsed xenon, or quartz halogen, or whatever newfangled lighting you kids use!), messy stinky chemicals and sponges, whether using additive or subtractive plates. And more slimy hands! (NO! STILL NO GLOVES!)

-Press printing: Ink, typewash (yes, we called it typewash, even though there was no physical type on the litho press, because it was always called typewash before, and always will be called typewash), fountain solution, gum arabic, and hands that can be both inky and slimy and NO, still no rubber gloves.

Sorry for the rant. Now... where's my opaquing brush?
posted by The Deej at 12:49 PM on August 5, 2011


especially the strippers, who were kind of the prima donnas of the shop because they had the most valuable skillset and they knew it.

My first job out of college was in the advertising department of the largest department store chain in Indiana (now defunct). It was complete shop. Design, writing, photography, illustration, typesetting, composition, mechanicals, etc. etc. etc.

The true superstar of the department was the guy who did photo retouching. The guy was phenomenal. We're talking beyond-Soviet-grade "remove-the-out-of-favor-commissars" work. Just amazing stuff. He mainly worked on large hard-copy photos. But, once, I watched him once re-touch a freaking color transparency! That was mind-breaking amazing.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:27 AM on August 6, 2011


whaddya mean, they couldn't find a hot waxer? heck, I've got one stashed under my desk right now, along with about 20 pounds of wax, a box of my old non-repro blue pens & pencils, a couple proportion wheels, some pica poles, exacto knives, rollers, greyscale sheets and (kuppajava will appreciate this) some rubylith, left over from the good old days --- in our case, about ten years ago --- when "cutting and pasting" meant cutting and pasting......

and a proportion wheel is difficult to understand and use?!? you just line up a number on the inner wheel with one on the outer wheel: how hard is that!
posted by easily confused at 7:56 AM on August 6, 2011


« Older Earlier this year, David Guttenfelder, chief Asia ...  |  Dr. Justin O. Schmidt likes in... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments