Saturday, August 09, 2008

Besides, We Need It For The Catbox

In a Christian Science Monitor[1] mood-piece either wistful or whiny depending on how cynical you're feeling, an upwardly-mobile Angelino managed to sum up the thing I miss most about newspapers:

In the pressroom, language was machinery with exciting physicality. Words were three-dimensional and muscular. To me, the typesetters were heroes – men who loved the shape of words, the literal style of a line, the fonts, the spaces, the ens and ems. The newspaper of the pressroom was visceral, noisy, oily, and thrilling.

I remember seeing typesetters pick up the first paper off the press, snap it open, still warm, and read it like a lover. You've never seen a reader as avid as a hot-type pressman.

Those days are more than gone; they've been melted down to scrap along with the presses that once shook the building -- and the culture that once throve[2] one floor up.

I've been in our local paper's building recently; I was in when they were tearing the old presses out and I've been back since that space at the heart of the building rang heart-wringingly hollow as a politician's soul. Our Paper used to be laid out in a manner more stodgily conservative than the Wall Street Journal, line-delineated columns of tight black type stalwartly carrying tight black workmanlike prose and an editorial outlook (conservative, by gosh) as dependable as sunrise.

When the Linotypes went, when the presses moved outta town (all the way out of the County), all the rest of that went, too. There's plenty of color and white space on the page now and the Opinion pages are as dizzyingly open-minded as a hippie dropping the happiest acid -- and every bit as consistent and coherent, too.

One floor above the haunted, vacant hole at the center of the building, a care-worn remnant soldier on, men and women scattered at desks through a vast, empty-feeling newsroom. They still run three shifts, so it's never going to feel especially crowded outside major events; but it's emptier than ever now. The building never shakes to the gallop of news hot, fresh and inky -- and somehow, the scribes one floor up don't seem as excited, fresh or inky themselves, any more.

Eras end; the last railroad telegraphers clicked their last "30" down the wire more recently than you'd think and regular long-wave maritime radiotelegraphy on 500 kc/s didn't grind to a halt until 1999, largely unnoticed and unmourned. This is progress -- a ship's captain (or even a crew member) can usually make what amounts to a celphone call from the middle of the ocean as easily as you can in your back yard. The trains still run (mostly) on time and into one another more rarely than ever thanks to centralized dispatch centers who know exactly where they all are, all the time, and just how things are going with the train and the track.

While I can spare a stray tear for the signalman's lamp and Spark's half-hourly "Silent Period"[3] watch on the ships hailing frequency, ears straining for the faint, beeping cry for help, I am not so sure we can give up the cynical, surly, fact-driven reporters of yore -- or the pressmen who called 'em on it when they got too big for their britches.

...Oh, crap. The onus is partially on us, isn't it? There's a vacuum in "reportage," and here's all these bloggers...

1. Nothing personal, I've known plenty of scientific Christians, but the other way 'round, taken literally? I'm sure glad somebody's monitoring that!
2. Add to the list of words unknown to Blogger: "throve." Oh f'pity's sake.
3. More here, if you like this sort of thing.


Anonymous said...

They were still using Linotype?!

That went the way of the dodo for most major newspapers about the time I was born..

Fear not - typemetal printing still goes on - there's quite a large underground hobby of it, and there's probably several highend printshops nearby doing highend printing for events(weddings mostly), where the feel of traditional typeset is desired(type is pressed INTO the paper).

Roberta X said...

I'm not sure -- they could have been big offset presses; but they're gone now and with them the sense of urgency and immediacy the paper's offices one had.

The layout had not changed since well before my birth, until they went to the new presses.

Turk Turon said...

The story about distress calls on 500 kc was most excellent!


staghounds said...

And they wore those cool newspaper caps!