Truly Weighty Words

IMG_2138Once upon a time, way back in the 20th century, newspapers were not electronic but mechanical. Last week I reminisced about the mechanical tools used by reporters and copy editors: the standard manual typewriter, powered by the writer’s own fingers; half-sheets of newsprint rolled through the typewriter and taking imprints of the keys; and a No. 1 soft black Mirado pencil for marking paragraphs and making corrections.

But one big step was still needed before the marked-up typewriter copy, light as the paper it was typed on, was transformed into a clean, weighty story on a page of the newspaper. The magic was performed by a linotype operator in the composing room, an entirely different venue from the newsroom where the story was written and edited.

The linotype was one of the revolutionary mechanical inventions of the late 19th century. It used hot metal poured into matrices and cooled to form single lines of type. The matrices fell into line at the touch of the linotype operator, who read from the typed and marked-up copy. When the line was cast, it was ejected and the matrices automatically recycled.

Thus every story was typed two times, first by the reporter in the newsroom, then by the linotype operator in the composing room. But the linotype was nothing like a typewriter. It required special training. It was big, and hot, and operated by pressing keys on a keyboard of 90 different characters.

At the papers I was familiar with, the composing room was a union shop, ruled by a foreman. This, plus the complexity of the linotype machine, made for a strict and absolute separation between newsroom and composing room. The linotype operators were required to set the lines of type exactly as typed and marked by the reporters and editors, even if the operators happened to spot an error. The logic for this was that linotype operators were valued for accuracy and speed, not for their knowledge of the topic of a story. And if they made a change in the wording, the proofreader (from the newsroom) wouldn’t know if it was an error.

The proofreader was the one person from the newsroom permitted in the composing room. Even the proofreader, however, was strictly prohibited from touching the lines of type, whether in galley proofs or in the made-up pages. The proofreader could point at something to be changed, but all the physical work was the domain of the union. And the proofreader learned how useful it was to know the composing room foreman’s preference for beverages at the holiday season.

I have on my desk, near my flat screen, a souvenir of those days, an inch-high piece of metal with my name on it in 24-point sans serif type, a gift from a linotype operator years ago. I wouldn’t revert to those old mechanical ways even if I could. But ever since computers took over, my words have never seemed as weighty as they used to.

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