Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Why some of us stick to print: the feel and smell

"I think part of the reason we are saddened by the end of the physical newspaper has to do with the senses. There's the sound of pages turning, the feel of the paper, the smell of the ink," Jan Worth-Nelson, a lecturer in writing at the University of Michigan-Flint, writes for The Christian Science Monitor.

I think the newspaper will survive in printed form, but Worth-Nelson makes a valid argument, and with recollections from the days of hot type in Keokuk, Iowa, that parallel my own in Kentucky, so here are some more:

"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. Sometimes they'd tell a reporter they liked some story or other. Getting praise from a typesetter was among the highest compliments." (Read more)

I was a pest to typesetter Phillip Allen, who ran the Linotype at the Clinton County News in Albany, Ky., because I wanted him to do box scores for the all-star games of the local Little League and Babe Ruth League, for which I was official scorer and correspondent. Why he gave in to a 12-year-old, I don't know. The smell and feel I remember most is taking the slug of hot type from Phillip, running an ink roller over it, laying down a strip of paper and using a heavy roller to pull a galley proof. There's nothing like helping produce your own story with ink, metal and paper, and that experience is part of the reason I will buy printed newspapers as long as they're produced – which I expect to be for the rest of my life. I'm 54.


Jan Worth-Nelson said...

I love that description. Yes, there was something so satisfying about the ink and the literal "press" of the process, wasn't there? Thanks for excerpting from my essay. The paper I worked at in Iowa was the Daily Gate City in Keokuk. Fascinating place. It holds a very special spot in my memory. I was there in the summer of 1970.

Tom Bethell said...

Al, thanks for bringing us that lovely piece by Jan Worth-Nelson. It brings back memories of working at The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg in the '60s, when Tom Gish still ran his own Harris press in the same space where we produced copy and laid out the pages. No, it wasn't a linotype + letterpress operation, but in operation it smelled wonderful and made a hell of a ruckus, especially on the memorable night when, at about 3 a.m., the press suddenly hurled a large bolt across the room. Tom threw the panic switch and then spent about an hour crawling under and into the press, trying to figure out where the bolt had come from. Gave up, finally, and started her up again, expecting a cataclysm at any minute and keeping an anxious hand on the switch. The press ran just fine, however, and yet another issue of the Eagle hit the streets at dawn. Those were, as they say, the days, and anyone lucky enough to have experienced them should be feeling a sense of privilege along with the inevitable grief for the loss of something irreplaceable. (And yes, mea culpa, I'm writing this on a lovely but eerily silent Mac, with a 1946 Royal portable ready for back-up action on a moment's notice.)