Archive for Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Change nothing new for newspapers

October 8, 2008

Looking back over my life, one thing is clear: All I ever wanted to do to make a living was be a journalist. In fact, every job I have held, except one summer spent working on a construction gang in college, has been in some area of journalism.

I remain proud to have been a journalist and I remain a newspaper addict. Any time we travel, I pick up a newspaper in any community that we visit. Even though I don’t know a soul there, I enjoy reading about what is going on and the problems they are facing. I also enjoy old newspapers, too. It is fascinating to track history through the pages of old publications.

Sadly, there are those who say the newspaper business is dead, and I know that many publications are struggling. I hope they are wrong because I can’t imagine a world without daily and weekly newspapers. I do believe that the industry will adapt and continue to be a major part of our society.

Change is nothing new for the newspaper business. The style of writing has changed dramatically over the decades. If you read a newspaper from the mid-19th century you will find writing that is far more complex than today. This has led me to believe that folks in those days had greater reading skills than we do today or that they had a lot more time to devote to newspapers.

Writing in that era was far more graphic when it came to describing crime than it is today. The old newspapers printed everything they could find about a crime and weren’t concerned about tainting evidence.

In the area of politics, there were some very harsh attacks. Almost all newspapers represented one of the political parties and their candidates were lavishly praised. On the other hand, the opposition was always condemned. In an era when politics was more popular than sports, winning candidates could hand out favors such as lucrative printing contracts. A century ago, many small towns had two newspapers, one supporting the Republican Party and the other backing the Democrats.

The other major change has been in the method of producing newspapers. I started my career as a “printer’s devil” at the Anderson Countian newspaper in Garnett. I had the good fortune to have had a high school journalism teacher who encouraged me to write, and I soon did some double duty as a printer and writer for the Garnett paper.

In those days, producing a newspaper was hard and hot work utilizing hot medal. The keystone of the print show was the linotype, a large machine with a unique keyboard. The operator punched a key and a brass matrix with a letter dropped in place and when you had a full line of type (hence the name of the machine) you pushed a lever and it was filled with hot lead. By repeating the process, you soon produced news stories. The machine would sort the brass matrix and return them to their proper place. It was a wonderful machine that dominated the printing industry from the 1880s until the 1960s. A good operator could produce 20 to 40 inches of type per hour. Setting the type for ads was a slower process.

Hot lead was also used to prepare advertising pictures and everything was combined into newspaper pages, which weighed about 90 pounds each. Then, in weekly newspapers, a flat bed press was utilized for printing. Each sheet was hand fed into the press, which meant it took a long time. Bigger newspapers used a sheet fed press that sped up the process. If you visit the Negro League Hall of Fame there is a linotype on display in the lobby. Looking at the linotype, I wished I could set just one more line of type!

I’m glad I learned the printing trade because I’m sure that I would never have succeeded when I bought my first newspaper in Mulvane. About that time, the world changed and newspapers started using primitive typesetting computers. Everything was a “cut and paste” system, which was faster and certainly a much cleaner process. In the past couple of decades, the method of producing printed material has changed many times over. Now, there is no cutting and pasting, composition is done on the computer. Pages are assembled on the computer and sent to the printer online. In my day, the paste ups were carefully loaded into boxes and physically driven to the print shop. There can be little doubt that the newspaper industry has changed radically in my lifetime.

The question about the future remains and I, for one, am optimistic. The advent of radio and television caused people to believe that newspapers were doomed, yet they adapted and survived. I believe that there are many challenges and changes ahead for the industry, and I sincerely hope that it will survive and remain a cornerstone of life in the modern world.

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