Digital media / Journalism

Letterpress era echoes survive in digital newsrooms

For an online news editor younger than me, the vintage city room photo atop my Facebook timeline included an odd contraption.

“I wonder what that circular thing is by the copy desk,” she commented when my cover photo displayed a 1917 scene from The Detroit News, where we each had worked. (Full image is at the end of this post.)

The puzzling throwback is a pneumatic tube system for whooshing copy to Linotype operators and proofs back to the copy desk.

The exchange sparked a time-traveling fantasy. (It doesn’t take much on a slow summer day.) Imagine how disorienting it would be for vest-wearing journalists from the early 20th century to visit their old downtown Detroit workplace, though it remains a newsroom where 2012 counterparts do tasks they’d recognize for a daily with the same name.

People still type with two fingers. Reporters still use phones, though not always with cords. Editors and writers still gripe, often about each other.

But copy has become content, broadband is more important than broadsheets, and mobile delivery doesn’t involve wheels. Deadline Every Minute now applies to all journalists, not just UPI wire service staffers who were the subject of Joe Alex Morris‘ 1957 book with that title.

Yet imaginary visitors from the past would hear more than a few familiar phrases. Wire service, for instance, still refers to AP, Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones even though dispatches haven’t come via telegraph or any other wire for many decades.

Other carryovers aren’t used only by crusty old-timers:

  • Banner: Display strips atop news websites have the same name as six-column heads printed during world wars, assassinations and the moon landing. (Yes, they can be called a billboard or a splash, but let’s not get picky.)
  • Case: You’re likely a history buff, former printer or old-school journalist if you know why capital letters are called upper case and others are lower case. When heads and display ads were hand-set, capitals and regular type were kept in two different trays — the upper case and the lower case. True story.
  • Cutline: This alternative word for caption outlives its roots in the photoengraving era, when etched zinc images of drawings were called line cuts. (Engraved photos were halftones, also sometimes called cuts for convenience.)
  • Leading: Space between type lines now expands with keystrokes rather than thin strips of blank lead inserted in the composing room. But we continue referring to “extra lead” or “leading,” and el is HTML code for that action in some programs.
  • Lede: Journalists who never heard a Linotype clack use this spelling for an article’s top paragraph. Not all of them know the spelling originated to avoid confusion with the metal in hot type.
  • Paste: Decades before this was a computer command for inserting copied text, it had a literal meaning in newsrooms. Paste pots with brushes (later replaced by rubber cement jars) sat on editors’ desks, used to reorganize copy that was cut and pasted.
  • Rim, Slot: Some newsrooms still use horseshoe layouts with copy editors around a rim and slot editors inside the semicircle, an efficient setup when work was handed back and forth on paper. It’s still a cozy arrangement for brainstorming, quick questions and coordinating vending machine runs.   
  • Slug: This crisp synonym for story name or file name is another reference to the hot type era. An identifying line on a slug of lead sat atop each stack of type sent to the composing room.
  • Spike: Some newsroom keyboards label the delete key with this word, also spoken as a synonym for kill (by editors, not hit men). Back in the day, desktops had a sharp spindle or inverted nail where rejected copy and other sheets literally were spiked.

Nuggets of journalism’s colorful past enrich its electronic present. They connect modern designers to paste-up artists, web producers to typesetters. At the same time, some jargon is best left buried.

“Hello sweetheart, get me rewrite” is outdated in too many ways to explain. Spike it.

[This  appeared Aug. 17, 2012 as a guest post at The Visual Side of Journalism, an American Society of Copy Editors  blog by Charles Apple.]

Newsroom at The Detroit News, 1917


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