If lead is so deadly, how come so many old-time newspapermen and -women lived long enough to teach youngsters like me how to make up pages? The stuff surrounded us as soon as we ventured into the composing room.

There, rows of Linotype machines were fed by lead ingots melting into pots alongside the operators, who could produce lines of type (hence the name Linotype)  in seconds even though the seemingly clumsy process involved using a unique keyboard to select a brass matrix for each letter that would then slide into place. The lead would flow from the pot beside the operator into these matrices for the casting cycle, and finally the Linotype spat out its  lines of type into a narrow steel tray, or “galley,” designed to accommodate them.

The galleys were then carried away to be “proofed.” That required applying ink over the type, laying a long strip of galley-length paper over it to get the proof and sending the resulting proof off to the proofreaders. The proofreaders were a subset of printers who also received the original edited copy. Their job was to ensure that the proof matched the copy. The skilled ones just read the proof for obvious errors, checking the copy if there was any doubt. Particularly important or sensitive stories, however, would be flagged with the warning: “Read with copyholder.” That meant one proofreader was to sit alongside the other to ensure no errors crept in.

Next step for these lines of lead type was taking them to the “stones,” or steel-topped tables lining the composing room. There the compositors, yet another subset of printers, would slide the columns out into “chases,” or frames, which were the size and shape of the future newspaper page.

Once type for a story was used and discarded, it was pitched into a “hellbox” on the floor, along with more lines the proofreaders had found to contain typographical errors. If type spilled onto the floor we sometimes waded through these lead lines until they were swept up and dumped into the hellboxes. When full, the hellboxes were trundled to a crucible to be recycled into fresh ingots for the Linotype machines.

Stories and headlines were written separately, sent to the composing room separately, and set into type separately. To tie them together each story was assigned a “slug,” which was incorporated in its own line of type atop the galley. If a space on the Page One layout, or “dummy,” called for a story slugged “Blizzard,” for example, the compositor laying out that page would look for a galley of story-sized type with the slug line “Blizzard” on top and another galley of headlines with the matching slug. He would put them together in the chase as indicated by the page dummy. To avoid confusing slug lines with stuff the newspaper reader was eventually meant to see, we used deliberate misspellings in slug lines like “hed” for “headline” and “nu lede” for a “new lead” that was to be put on top of an earlier story. Once the story and headline were in the chase, the slug line went into the hellbox.

All this work took place away from the newsroom, typically on another floor. The chief copy editor on each departmental desk, who sat in the “slot” of the U-shaped desks in the newsroom, would roll up typed stories and handwritten headlines, stuff them into cylinders, and send them to the composing room via pneumatic tubes. Your bank’s drive-in window still uses a similar system when you put your deposit in a cylinder and then stick it in a pneumatic tube, where it disappears with the same “thwock” of air.

Meanwhile, layout editors would be drawing the pages they wanted on dummies and send them to the compositors through their own pneumatic tubes.  Depending on the size of the newspaper, most newsroom editors might not have to visit the composing room at all, leaving final editorial sign-off to makeup editors whose job was to be sure the compositors did the right thing.

Regular makeup editors tended to become part of the subculture of the composing room. They weren’t to touch the type, though. Tradition was that if they did the compositor would throw away that type and it would have to be reset.

Another tradition was that news stories were often written in the style of an inverted pyramid, with the most important information at the top and the least essential at the bottom. So if a story ran long the old-time compositors were inclined simply to throw away the last paragraph or two, and the old-time makeup editors were inclined to let them do it. When this led a fastidious foreign editor to complain that his carefully edited copy was being butchered, the offending makeup editor responded by telling the compositor to throw away the next-to-last paragraph instead, thus butchering it even worse as far as the foreign editor was concerned. The foreign editor caught him at that, too, and he had to start reading stories from the foreign desk before throwing lines away. We all learned how to read type, upside down and backwards..

Makeup editors were isolated enough from the newsroom that one part-time copy editor on the city desk, after being fired when he passed out on a pile of articles and stories one long election night, showed up in the composing room the next day and went to work for the chief makeup editor. He went on to become a highly successful publisher of newsletters, which he jokingly refers to as “the last refuge of unemployables.”

The editors from whom I learned most about makeup, though, were those who not only drew the dummies for key pages, such as the front pages, but also came to the composing room to supervise how they were put together.

My first such teacher was the news editor for the Worcester Evening Gazette in Massachusetts. Fritz (for Francis X.) Tobin had memorable work habits. He would show up in the morning, carrying a supply of cigarettes and a large cup of coffee with lots of cream and sugar, going through both as he went through the stories other editors offered for Page One. Making his selection, he would draw the layout dummy for the first page of the first edition, send it along, and then go down one flight of stairs to supervise its composition.

When that chase was ready to be processed for the presses, he would go all the way downstairs to the pub next door for the first brandy and soda of the day. He would then return to the newsroom, lay out the first page of the second edition, go downstairs to supervise makeup, and repeat the process through the third (city) edition.

By this time he was in the pub to stay, smoking and drinking and eating lunch and holding court with his hot redheaded girlfriend for other staffers who dropped in as we finished our shifts. I suppose we would now characterize him as a functioning alcoholic, but by my lights he functioned very well.

It is sometimes said of old-time newspaper people who come out of this tradition that they have ink in their veins, but the ink was actually laid on in the pressroom still farther below. What more likely flows through their veins is lead.
Copyright 2009, J.V. Reistrup