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Posts from the ‘Old School’ Category

Let’s judge a book by its cover.


For the same reason any reporter wants great graphics and photos to run with their stories, every author hopes they’ll get a real design talent to do their book cover. Here’s a New York Times list of notable covers in 2012 chosen by some equally notable designers. Let the arguments begin.

I’ll Take My Type Hot or Cold, Thanks.

Webster’s defines a composing room as “the department in a printing office where typesetting and related operations are performed.”  When I started working in the newspaper business in high school, I saw the real inspiration for the term — the loud, hot, wheezy machines known as the Linotypes. Invented in the 1880s and relegated to the scrap heap almost a century later, Linotypes opened the “hot type” era where molten metal was cast into individual lines of letters and symbols at the touch of a keystroke. At the time, it was the greatest advancement in print since Gutenberg.

There’s a new documentary about the Linotype and here’s a trailer.

I got to use a Linotype once at the end of a high school newspaper internship. The paper was in the process of moving to “cold” type,   computerized printed sheets of type that were made into plates and put on the press. Something had gone haywire with our truly state-of-the-art system that night. It was a summer night in 1977 and well after midnight when the final morning edition was being put to bed. A single Linotype remained in the corner of the floor, half museum piece, half emergency equipment. Having nothing else to do, the printers (the term for the guys who put the pages together) fired it up as a joke as we waited for the “new” technology to get fixed. One waved me over and asked if I wanted to try it.

I did. We were playing around with a piece of sports copy. But I remember the rapid-fire clicks of the machine as I touched the keys, the smell of the grease mixed in with that indefinable composing room smell…metal, paraffin, sandwiches and coffee, cigarettes, sweaty guy, probably a few more I didn’t want to know. I typed a couple of lines, got up and gave the others loitering about their turn. I went back to reading proofs, and somebody tapped me on the shoulder. “Here you go,” said Ray, who used to be one of a fleet of Linotype operators in that building. He pressed two little metal pieces in my hand — the lines I had typed.

They’re in a box somewhere. I really should go looking for them.

Sweetheart, Get Me…Oh, You Know the Rest.

One of my favorite rants about the newspaper business — there are many — has to do with rewrite desks. Or more to the point, how the rewrite desks of old, much like the copy desks of old, aren’t really part of many newsrooms anymore.

True, there are still tremendously talented reporters and editors handling rewrite and editing copy, but they’re in much smaller numbers today because most newspaper managers can’t — or won’t– pay for the value these skilled professionals bring to the product. Most are overworked and under-credited for the enormous contribution they make in print newsrooms everyday. They were our teachers, our lawyers and our final defense against inaccuracy, blandness and plain stupidity making it out to the streets.

They gave local newspapers a depth most have lost.

Rewrite editors are men and women (when I joined the business, mainly men) who take raw notes over the phone while barking questions along the way to make sure reporters in the field get it right. They hang up and take this mess of information and weave it into beautiful copy they actually put your name on. The rewrite men I worked with were all better reporters and editors than I’ll ever be.

Most were old-timers, all walking museums of Chicago knowledge. Late-night breaks were great because you got to hear some of their stories, full of color, profanity and detail. Always detail.

In the spirit of understatement, let’s just say they were a unique collection of personalities.

One of the most brilliant rewrite men I ever worked with believed he was a penguin. He made penguin noises, even had a little penguin song. Nobody cared. He wrote gorgeous copy. The rewrite bank was a single group of desks lined up facing the city editors. Both sides had a running dialogue, not always pleasant. (Our rewrite editors were rarely shy about pointing out errors or boneheaded news decisions.) Each had detailed maps of Chicago in their heads — God forbid you got a street name or number wrong. They’d catch it and then you’d hear about it forever. That’s how you learned.

One of the best at the Chicago Sun-Times was Phil O’Connor, a crime specialist who started his shift everyday with Rolodexes and manilla files he’d put under lock and key at night. The value of this material was the journalistic equivalent of Fort Knox. He probably knew every desk sergeant in the city and suburbs and cops up and down the food chain knew to take his calls. Phil was one of the kindest, most gentle and most soft-spoken people in the newsroom — until someone on the other end of the line made the mistake of stonewalling him. Then you’d hear a roar from this lovely man that would freeze the blood in your veins.

Hugh Hough, another sweetheart who wrote so beautifully on deadline it took your breath away, won the Pulitzer Prize with Art Petacque in 1973 for the investigation they did into the 1966 murder of Valerie Percy, daughter of former U.S. Senator Charles Percy. Hugh took me under his wing when I was an intern in 1981, and when he died of cancer in 1986 — only  hours after visiting the newsroom for the last time — it was one of the few times I cried at work.

Anyway, all these memories came rushing back when I saw this lovely little feature in Vanity Fair. Oh, if only one of VF’s high-priced photographers had been around to capture our guys at the Sun-Times. It might have been an equally classy picture like the one above. OK, probably not.

But oh my — I wish someone had taken one.

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