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October 11, 2018

A Clumsy Ballerino

Time was, you had a choice of getting your newspaper in the morning or afternoon. The “old” newspaper business is all but dead, gasping in the wake of digital news. And the afternoon papers were first to go in an industry that has been massively impacted by the transition. I was proud to be a part of that old era, and the lessons learned were enduring and invaluable.
During college, I worked for the Indio Daily News of Indio, California. (It was folded into the Palm Springs The Desert Sun in 1990.) I began in Circulation as a motor route driver, piloting my Datsun pickup southeast from Indio, winding through a long, ragged string of trailer parks and kiosks along the Salton Sea.
Many of the roads were unpaved and rugged. After I’d sacrificed a paycheck on two new tires, I met with the Circulation Manager and told him I couldn’t afford the job anymore. To my surprise, he suggested I speak with the Production head, a lean old Arkansan who sat me at a typewriter for a speed test. I smiled to myself, and in short order obliterated the 100 words-per-minute barrier. I was hired on the spot (shout out to Mrs. Jolene Crowder of 8th grade typing, Weatherford High School).0
Very soon, I was in the Typesetting Department, tapping at a console listening to the clatter of a paper tape being punched at each keystroke. Typesetting requires the input of text together with command codes that tell the imaging technology what font, point size, leading, line length, and other parameters to use. It takes a while to learn them all, and you have to mentally visualize them as you go, but eventually it becomes second nature.
The process was fascinating. The paper tape I generated was taken to a proofreader who sat at a machine with a monitor that displayed text together and command codes. She would run my tape into her console, proofread, edit, and output a new tape. That tape would be fed into a film machine that would output a film with characters in the right format. The film would be waxed on the underside for adhesion and then cut and pasted by hand onto page layouts in the Composing Room. Finally, it was off to the camera for plates to be photographed and loaded onto the printing press.
Newspaper printing presses are amazing. They pull paper from a huge roller, and print, collate, fold, and cut before sending the papers along a chain-driven conveyer over the wall into the insertion room. There, they were taken off the line and placed in bins. The inserters—students, dropouts, part-time working parents, and suspected vagrants—would insert advertising circulars into each paper by hands that blurred with speed. A worker would take the newspapers, now with fliers inserted, bind them into stacks with nylon twine, and stack them up for loading. Finally, we motor route drivers would grab our quota and hit the road.
It was an ugly, clattering ballet: visually clumsy, endlessly noisy, but precise. Each profession had its own deadline in succession: reporters at 11, typesetters at 12, composing at 1.00, and pressmen at 2.00. With a single blown deadline, the dominoes would fall, but all of us would join the struggle to get us back on track.
I played a humble role. Yet, few roles have been more instructional. I’m an introvert, but I was fascinated by the ballet with its individual players. I interacted up and down the line—most often with editors and journalists as we tussled over grammar, punctuation, and word choice. But also with every stage of production. I was a semi-legend to the typesetting crew as “the guy who knew Circulation.”
Yes, I had my moments of ignominy. In the lead sentence of the lead story on page one, I once typeset “Immigration” instead of “Irrigation”—as in “Coachella Valley Irrigation District.” (It was a story on wind damage.) That one got me a snarl from the surly Arkansan. But I survived.
And while I continue to marvel at the capacity and speed of digital media, I wonder: do they still teach the arabesque?

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