Writer’s Roost

Lugging all-metal newspaper pages can produce hernias



I n today’s computerized, digital world there aren’t many of us left who remember that carrying a newly typeset newspaper page to the press was just about guaranteed to produce a hernia or a herniated spinal disc… or both.

However, I read recently about a traveling display of the old metal type, hand-set and machine set, for printing with which some of us labeled as “ancient” had some experience. According to the story, kids today are amazed and intrigued by the metal type. Not only is it metal and the letters a raised surface, but it is negative, i.e., you have to read it backwards. That’s necessary for the words to transfer to “positive” when the inked metal type meets the paper page.

My introduction to metal type came with my first newspaper job in August, 1957. Fresh from two years of college, and needing money to finance the final two years, I dropped out of school and accepted a job as news editor of my hometown newspaper, The Teague Chronicle.

It was produced by the letterpress (raised metal type) method and printed on the Chronicle’s very own sheetfed newspaper press. Two very essential people in that process were printer Jim Stringer and Linotype operator Lee Fairly, both very experienced and skilled.

Jim was the foreman of the printing operation. He’d been at it more than 50 years.

The Chronicle was a very old-fashioned newspaper and its “look” or makeup was directed by the most expedient use of its printing equipment and personnel. Jim dictated that.

Thus, the Chronicle was a 7-column newspaper and the front page consisted of seven columns of type and each headline was only one column wide. It was easier to machine-set small headlines than to hand-set multicolumn headlines like most “modern” newspapers.

My two years of education dictated that a news page, particularly a front page, should have a “horizontal” look in that just about every headline was multi-column and larger than the 24-point (about 1/3-inch) heads Jim accepted. And, each column had a black rule (line) the full depth of the page.

In the first week there, I finished all my stories early in the morning of press day and, as I was taught, sat down to do a miniature layout (called a “dummy”) of the front page with headline sizes indicated in place. Upon finishing that chore, I took the dummy and laid it on the front page form in the printing department.

Then I went back to my typewriter to write some headlines. In a moment, the dummy came flying over my shoulder and landed on my desk followed by a stream of profanity: “What the !@#$%^& *+== is this?!”

I turned to see the hulking form of Jim, red-faced and, it seemed, steam coming out of his ears and fire from his nostrils. I remained calm and said, “Well, Jim, that’s a front page dummy.”

His caustic and corrective reply: “It’ll take a long time to hand-set them !@#$ heads and besides, with all those multi-column heads and stories, we’ll be cutting up a lot of expensive column rules!!!!”

“Well, sir,” I began respectfully, “this is the modern look for newspapers today — horizontal — and it attracts readers.”

“Well, I’ll make it up this week but if that’s what you want, you come watch and learn to make the front page because you’ll be doing it from now on!” roared Jim.

I followed him to the printing department where he issued me a printer’s apron, a pica pole (printing ruler) and a lead rule with which to add spacing to a column of type. Since I was determined the Chronicle was going to “look modern,” I learned to read the type backwards and to handset headlines. And, “front page make-up man” was added to the title of news editor for the year I was there.

And, our column rule bill rose accordingly.

WILLIS WEBB is a retired community newspaper editor-publisher. He can be reached by email at <wwebb@wildblue.net>

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