essays and articles by david g allen

Recollections of the Linotype Pressroom


September 10, 2002

From the fall of 1968 until my graduation in May 1971, I was actively involved on the staff of the Cadet, the Virginia Military Institute’s student newspaper. I don’t recall ever having a title or being listed on the editorial staff, but the Editor did refer to me often as "Photo Editor" during my senior year.

I first signed on as staff photographer at the behest of a classmate who had started with the newspaper our freshman year. At a military college, there are certain perks and permits that excuse cadets from routine duties. Being a newspaper photographer was one of these plums as you could avoid military parade in order to take pictures of the parade. There were other opportunities to avoid marching and a good photographer took full advantage of them. I point this out so you won’t think that I harbored some unfulfilled journalistic quest while enrolled in a college that had no Journalism Department. My motives in the beginning were clear and simple—a Cadet photographer had a few privileges that others didn’t.

But there was a price to be paid for this perk. For every hour I spent avoiding marching in a parade, I would spend 3-4 in the darkroom developing film or making prints. And my timeslot to work the darkroom was after ten or eleven in the evening since I was least senior on the staff. Often, I wouldn’t finish until 1 am or 2 am and that did cut into the minimal hours that were rationed for sleep. Reveille, the morning bugle call, sounded at 6 am, regardless of one’s rank in the Corps of Cadets.

The Cadet was published weekly at the Lexington News-Gazette, the weekly newspaper for Lexington, VA and Rockbridge County. And until sometime in 1971 after I had graduated, the News-Gazette used one of the few remaining Linotype presses in America. All of the machinery sported "Patent Pending" metal tags with dates belonging to the 1890’s. All of the machines were industrial in nature. The pressroom was dark and noisy with fumes from the ink and hot lead filling the air. "Gritty" is how I would describe it lest you think in terms of modern plants that meet OSHA standards. At the News-Gazette, Charles Dickens could have walked out of the shadows and you would not have been surprised to see him there.

Before you think adversely of the printing plant, let me say that you would love to have worked there. The news is not generated in a sterile, correct atmosphere and I always thought that some degree of grime needed to work its way through the process of announcing it. In many ways, I could touch, taste, and smell the news, both literally and figuratively. Today, OSHA requires a barrier wherever the human senses might come in contact with the news of the day. I was fortunate in that I felt the same delights that Gutenberg probably did when ink first glistened on moveable type.

Two old men with green eyeshades operated the two Linotypes at the News-Gazette. One had the feeling that they had arrived as young boys with the machines when new and never escaped their tethers. It was obvious in 1970 that aspiring newspapermen like myself weren’t apprenticing for Linotype jobs and we felt lucky indeed to have these septuagenarians still plying their trade. They were pro’s and could compose copy in a pinch if we ran short on time for a re-write. They each smoked cigarettes. That was not so much back then because everyone smoked. But these guys could hold their ash and watching them smoke was an event to behold.

They clipped the typewritten copy at eye level and began their work. On the keyboard, lower-case letters were on the left panel, upper-case letters on the right, and in the center were numbers, punctuation marks, etc. The more-sophisticated Linotypes used several sets of type, varying styles and point size. As I recall, the News-Gazette Linotype had but one tray of letter molds making all copy in the newspaper one size and one font style. Every letter, mark, space, etc. required a keystroke and as the operator typed, you could hear the bronze letter molds tinkling down a chute and then line up in a tray to the right of the operator. Character spacing was an art form as the Linotype used spacing blanks called "em’s" and "en’s" depending on whether a full or half space was needed.

Once the tray filled with the small bronze letter molds, the operator pushed a lever that let molten lead flow to the molds and, presto, the line of type was made. (Each letter, space, mark, etc. was still an individual "slug".) The hot lead cooled very quickly and then each line was dropped into a column-width tray. When the article was finished, the tray of type was sent to the Pressman. If the article was 20 column-inches, then the tray was 20" long, and so on.

I always thought that the most amazing feature of the Linotype was how it returned the bronze letter molds back to the type storage bins at the top of the machine. Once the line was pressed in lead, the tray of letter molds was dumped and conveyed to the top of the machine where they were sorted. Somehow the Linotype could read each individual mold and return it to where it belonged. As the operator was only creating a few inches of type at a time, there weren’t that many individual letter molds in the bins. So if the Linotype couldn’t sort and re-use the molds, you can see how the process would have stalled out.

I call him the "Pressman" but he actually did several jobs that would be done by others in a larger plant. At the News-Gazette, the Pressman was a one-man orchestra.

The first step was to proof the copy and he inked the column-wide tray with a hand roller. Then he laid a narrow strip of paper, usually red newspaper stock, over the tray and rolled it making a printed copy of the article. One of our staffers would begin proofing the printed copy and the Pressman would proof the tray. Although he was reading a mirror image, where b’s and d’s and p’s and q’s are hard to keep track of, the Pressman could proof the galley tray faster than any English major could proof the print copy.

Our Pressman was a gem of a man in his 40’s and I always believed he knew the secrets of the Universe but was content to work in a Linotype shop, waiting for Charles Dickens to appear from the shadows. And of course, should that happen, both would hoist a brandy and laugh heartily at English majors trying to proofread news copy!

The Pressman kept his tweezers handy and plucked any typo. From a tray of spares, he’d replace the errant letter. I also remember the Pressman inserting hyphens. Before the days of "justified" printing, the newspaper was allowed wide latitude in hyphenating words. How wide? Well, the rule of thumb was to fill the column width and whatever spilled over to the next line was "justified", to overuse a poorly chosen word.

The Pressman also hand set all of the headlines and sub-headlines with individual bronze letters. We were limited to Franklin Bold and Bodini Bold but did have the full range up to 120 pts. At any rate, the Linotype only set the copy type and, in that process, all special letters had to be hand set, just as in Gutenberg’s system.

At the start of the week, our editorial meeting outlined the entire issue. The Editor and Sports Editor assigned stories and photo wants. The Business Manager outlined his needs for paid ad space. The Managing Editor began marking up a full-sized newspaper template with pencil lines; his rendering was the blueprint for the entire issue, which usually ran 8 pages. Headlines, column headers, photos, display ad graphics, and the like were sized and boxed with an "X" marked through them. Columns were drawn in at their full 2" width. Other than the masthead, the pages had to be totally penciled in. After the copy was proofed, the proof sheet was trimmed with scissors and pasted into the columns on the template pages. And this is where the layout got tricky.

If the Managing Editor allowed 2-five inch columns for an article, the proof copy rarely matched the opening exactly. It was better to overrun the article by an inch and "snip" the last paragraph than run short. As I mentioned, we could do some last minute stretching or rewording at the plant but you did not want to rely on that happening for dozens of articles. This problem of matching copy to space is the reason why news articles are written with the most important fact first and then descending to the most extraneous fact. The editor could snip the last inch and not be worried about losing important information. Besides, if that last paragraph was that important, then next week’s follow-up could pick it up.

There were tricks of the trade in adjusting copy space. The eye rarely notices adding or subtracting a line or two from the header opening, especially if the resulting white space flows to the reader’s eye. Another technique was to increase the height of an ad by a line or two. This worked well for composed ads but not with prepared displays. And the Pressman could finagle some space blanks, here and there, to stretch copy, though that technique was tedious. I don’t recall much use of the now-popular clipart insertions to fill a column-inch.

By Wednesday morning, the Pressman had his 8-page blueprint with all of the proof copy pasted into the columns. He could then start moving the Linotype from the column trays into the galley trays. Each galley tray was a full newspaper page. Several advertisers such as Coca-Cola, department stores, the company that sold class rings, and the like, sent in display ads prepared by their ad agencies. The display ad negatives appeared to be made from styrene or other form of cheap plastic and were never used for more than one press run. The Pressman would cement these displays to a wood block (eg: 4x6, 6x6, 8x8, etc) and lay them in the galley tray. All that was left to do was the photos.

Before I mention the work involved in photos, let me say that, at one time or another, I did every job on the newspaper staff. From selling ads to writing copy and a column to working at the printing plant and doing the whole photo operation, I saw it all. I even published a special four-page issue for parents in August 1970 with only the help of our academic advisor, Colonel Dillard. Photos, I can say with certainty, were the most difficult and time-consuming task of all.

Sports photos were easy to shoot because you were almost always guaranteed plenty of light and lots of action. Brightly colored athletic uniforms also guaranteed contrasts. Indoor photos of people, however, were killers. Many a time, I was sent to shoot a conference speaker wearing a pale gray suit, standing behind a dark lectern, with the room lights dimmed to appease the audience. In the late Sixties, audiences loved the pseudo-intellectual atmosphere of dimly lit ballrooms. And how many times was I cautioned that, "Our esteemed guest speaker does not like to be annoyed by flash bulbs."? With the face shadows, the gray suit, and the dim lights, it was a challenge to get any degree of contrast in a black and white photo.

VMI had a peculiar problem as well. The wall behind the stage in Jackson Memorial Hall (named for Stonewall himself) is painted with a mural of the Civil War Battle of New Market. This setting makes for a challenging shot. Trying to isolate the speaker at the lectern without including the background Confederate soldier thrusting a bayonet into his Yankee foe was next to impossible! If all of the distinguished gentlemen who spoke from that stage ever realized how the backdrop of a fierce, bloody battle overshadowed their mere living presence, then I am sure that the Institute would have authorized a request for change in venue.

With these challenges, one learns the secrets of the darkroom. Yes, we could manufacture photos long before Adobe Photoshop was invented. We really had to doctor our work because of the photo-transfer process. At the News-Gazette, the actual b/w photo (made exactly to the layout size box dimensions) was placed on a rotating cylinder. The photo transfer machine was one of Thomas Edison’s creations for sending photos over the telegraph wires from coast to coast. Only in this case, the receiving cylinder sat on the same table.

The rotating photo was scanned with light and an electrical impulse was sent to the receiver. A plastic membrane rotated on the receiving cylinder and an electric pen etched the plastic according to the impulse sent from the sending machine. The concept is no different than pixel resolution in the digital process. But the Edison Electric system did have a major drawback--the less contrast, the poorer the resolution. And that is why indoor photos were such an anathema. When finished, and it took about an hour to etch a 4x6 photo, the plastic membrane was peeled away and cemented to a wood block and then placed in the galley tray. Because of the length of time needed to transfer photos, we were limited to six photos or so per issue. The front page got a 4x6 and Sports got a 4x6 and the rest were usually one-column wide shots.

It was now 4 o’clock on Wednesday afternoon and our wondrous eight pages were set. All that remained was for the staff to examine full-page proof copies and sign off for a Thursday morning press run. That last look at our "baby" was merely to double-check that we hadn’t left out something major. Our Pressman was ready to call it a day and Wednesday afternoon was not the time to suggest cosmetic changes.

The flat bed press was a marvel of industrial technology. I recall the press as being 40’ long, 8’ high, and about 16’ wide. The press frame with its decks was so massive that the two paper rolls hanging at the feed end looked more like paper towels than rolls of newsprint. The press could muster two twelve-page sections which meant there were 24 galley trays laid out on four levels. Just threading the newsprint through the myriad of rollers was no mere feat.

Large bull gears, Pittman’s, connecting rods, and rollers drove the press. To stand aside and watch its action reminded one of the drive wheels of a steam locomotive. And this press rumbled with all of the intensity of a locomotive. The only thing missing were the snorts of steam. But you could feel its raw power vibrate through the concrete floor in the pressroom.

The paper fed through, advancing a page length at a time. Our 8 pages were printed on two decks; four panels (2&7, 4&5) printed on the bottom level and their four backs (1&8, 3&6) were printed at the deck above. The ink roller made a quick trip across the galleys. Then the paper was rolled from the backside. The paper lifted up and away from the galley, advanced, and the ink rollers readied the galleys for the next print. At full speed, the behemoth could print, fold, cut, stack, and bundle 40 copies per minute. But our press run usually ran fewer than 1000 copies so the Pressman was never inclined to move the speed gear selector past the second notch. He babied his marvelous, massive iron giant. The Pressman toiled about with his oilcan, squirting a drop or two wherever needed.

And then, the newspaper was done.

But there remained one more task—tearing down the galleys. The thousands of Linotype slugs were dumped back into the lead kiln, to be re-melted for the next issue of Linotype. The photo etchings that took so long to make were peeled from the wood blocks and unceremoniously tossed in the trash; the same fate awaited the display ads. All of the ribbons of steel that had been the column dividers were pulled and sorted by length, to be used again. The headline blocks were broken down and each character returned to its bin in the wall rack. And so it was by Thursday afternoon, a set of empty galley trays waiting to be filled with the news of next week.

Tearing down the galleys is one of two recollections that taught me about the continuum of the newspaper. The other was watching the Pressman splice the newsprint from a new roll to the waning end of the old roll. These two happenings proved that a newspaper operation really never stopped—it just reported what it had and then readied for the next batch of stories.

To have had the opportunity to be involved from start to finish in all of the tasks gave me a rare perspective. After all, those Linotype operators, in all their decades of work, never pounded the pavement to sell ads. The Pressman, despite his virtuoso performances in a dimly lit pressroom, never photographed the intelligentsia. And the majority of our Cadet staff never set foot in the Linotype pressroom; never did they feel the ink smudge from a freshly-printed newspaper snatched from the conveyor.




Copyright 1990-2005  David G. Allen