a couple of weeks ago, a reporter named tom posted a message on the internal electronic bulletin board here at work. tom was leaving the paper after four years, and one of the things he said he'd miss is the funny, misspelled "EMPLOYES ONLY" door.
and i thought, misspelled? doesn't he know?
in the old days, newspapers cut out what they considered to be superfluous letters, to make it a little quicker for compositors to set the type. so employees became employes, and cigarette became cigaret, and dialogue became dialog, and kidnapped became kidnaped.
those simplified spellings, as they were known, continued well into the 1980s at a lot of papers, and live on in our EMPLOYES ONLY door. (and, as legend holds, on an elevator in the chicago tribune building that is still labled "frate.")
some of us old codgers set tom straight in our responses on the electronic bulletin board, but it wasn't entirely clear if he believed us. and i thought, man, all this history--someone has to write this down! someone in addition to Dumdad, i mean.
hence, "birth of a hack."
this will be the last installment for a while. i'll revisit this topic down the road, but i think a week of stories is enough to inflict on you. besides, i've been meemed twice this week, and there's another fun monday coming up, and, as usual, the dogs are feeling put out at my confiscating their blog for non-dog stories.
BIRTH OF A HACK, PART SIX.
as i had so nefariously planned, the summer on the copy desk turned into a full-time job. i was made a rimmer on the nightside desk, working 4 p.m. to 1 a.m., and helping to put the morning paper to bed. (that's us, above, in 1980. as you can see, i finally unfurled my hair. and you must certainly recognize tall blond p.miller!)
there was nothing about that job i didn't love.
the copy desk, in those days, was a traditional U-shape (this changed quickly in the big newsroom remodel of the 1980s, which ushered in the Age of Beige--beige cubicles, that is). the slot sat in the dip of the U, and the rimmers sat around the rim.
the slot ran the desk, laying out pages--including page one--and ordering heds and trims. we rimmers would pick up a dummy from the slot's desk, find the stories he'd marked for that page, edit them, trim them to fit, write headlines, crop the photos, and then bring the page out to the composing room so the printers could start pasting it up.
during my two years in the library, the newspaper had eliminated the pneumatic tubes and had installed Atex computers at all the desks. so now all the writing and editing was done on computer. stories were sent to the composing room electronically. the AP stories came in on the computer, as well, and the clacketing wire machine was no more. the newsroom was getting to be a quieter place--just the quiet clicks of the computer keyboard and the occasional squawk of the police scanner.
the low job on the copy editing totem pole was handling the local copy, so that job often fell to me. it was a hard job--i had to lay out my own pages, making accommodations on the fly for stories that came in too long (they never came in too short, for some reason), or that broke late. it was a constant scramble, and none of my pages ever looked very good. they looked more like jigsaw puzzles.
then, shortly before deadline, we went out into the composing room to watch the printers paste up our pages. they cut out the typeset stories with x-acto knives, fed them through rollers that coated the back side with wax, and pasted them onto mock-ups. the copy editors stood by, ready to show them which lines to cut if a story didn't fit, or to resend type if there was a problem.
(they would literally cut the edited line out of the story with their x-acto knives. one printer named Langley had very shaky hands, and you tried to avoid having him work on your page because he would paste the type in crooked. he would also drop cigaret ash on your page when he was nervous.)
we were not allowed to touch type. at all. the printers had a very strong union, and if one of us tried to adjust a crooked headline or even pick up a piece of type that had fallen onto the floor, the foreman had the right to ring a bell, stop work, and go to chapel. (that is, call a union meeting.)
the bell was very large and round and was mounted on the wall in the backshop, and when the foreman hit it with a metal stick you could hear it reverberate all through the second floor.
that bell governed their day. they would not start work until the foreman rang it, and they stopped immediately when he rang it again. the bell told them when to go to dinner, and when to come back from dinner. many, many nights i begged a printer to finish a page before going on break--we had page deadlines all night long, and i was often late. but they never would.
it was my greatest fear that i would inadvertently touch type and cause a work stoppage. i kept my hands jammed deep in my pockets whenever i was out on the floor.
after deadline, i was one of the few copy editors who had to worry about makeovers--redoing a page to worm in a late-breaking story. we published three editions--the Iron Range of northern minnesota was the earliest; then the superior, wisconsin, edition, which went as far east as the U.P. of michigan; and last was the city edition.
after first run, the slot and the other rimmers sat around and gabbed, and i worked on my makeovers as fast as i could so i could join in the fun. they were a brilliant bunch, intelligent and funny and sarcastic, with sharp-edged observations.
we had a cascading rush of deadlines, all night long--this page had to be done by this time, and then this page by this time, and the last page (which was always the jump page to a1) had to be off the floor by 11:15 p.m.
it got very hectic around 11 p.m, but everyone worked together, and worked really hard, and p.miller and i were always vying to get either andy or fellbaum to work on our pages, because they were so fast and efficient, and when you made deadline, it felt good. (and here's fellbaum now! in this picture he's re-enacting an incident where he accidentally stabbed the famous p.miller with his x-acto knife.)
sometimes we were urged to beat deadline. "there's snow in the alley," a manager would say, and that meant, "hurry up." ("snow in the alley" originally came from weather concerns--in bad weather, the trucks might have trouble getting to the Iron Range to drop off papers.)
working on local copy meant editing long boring stories about the city council, and eye-glazing stories about issues that were actually quite important but didn't make good reading: The International Joint Commission and its governance of Lake Superior water; Our Disappearing Wetlands; the IRRRB (known as the Eye-Triple-R-B) and its efforts to bring some kind of industry to northern minnesota to replace the vanishing taconite mines.
one Saturday evening i was copy editing an unfathomable story about peat; i couldn't really follow what it was about, exactly, but it had been through the city desk and i figured i was just stupid. the reporter walked by. "any problems with my story?" she asked.
"nope," i said. "looks good."
"good," she said. "because i have absolutely no idea what it was about."
the copy desk job that i aspired to was sorting wires; i loved reading the news wires, and all the different stories that flowed into our computers all night long. the early versions were from the associated press, and were terse and just-the-facts. the later we went, the richer and better-written the stories were. the ones from Knight Ridder were the best--complicated, well-told tales from the Philadelphia Inquirer or the Detroit Free Press or the Miami Herald.
if i ever become a reporter, those are the kinds of stories i'm going to do, i thought. but of course, that was silly; i was never going to become a reporter. i was quite content where i was.
there was never enough room for all the news we wanted to run. there still isn't. sometimes stories that we thought were deeply important ended up as briefs, or didn't make the paper at all. but we did our best.
the nights when i sorted wires, i went home at midnight and turned on "NBC News Overnight with Linda Ellerbee," to compare what she had chosen for her news broadcast with what i had chosen for the morning paper. She doesn't know it, but she helped teach me news judgment.
i worked nights, weekends, most major holidays, and for long spans of time i had split days off--often Tuesday and Thursday. i didn't care a whit. i loved going to work at 4 p.m.; i'd get up at 10 a.m. and feel like i had had an entire day by the time i walked in the front door of the newspaper.
there were tensions, of course. the copy chief told me that one night he sat bolt upright in bed at 2 in the morning, suddenly hit by the cold fear that he had made a bad typo in the main headline on page1. it was too late to fix, but he couldn't get back to sleep unless he knew for sure. he got on the phone and called the 7-11. "are the papers in yet?" he asked the clerk.
"do me a favor," he said. "can you look at the headline on page1 and tell me how 'judgment' is spelled?"
the clerk read it to him: J-U-D-G-E-M-E-N-T. there was nothing else for the copy chief to do but go back to bed.
perhaps the worst mistake i observed was when one of the other rimmers was filling in on slot. we were running a moving tale out of the Southwest about illegal immigrants. and the word she used in the headline? "wetbacks." she was astounded and humiliated and extremely repentant the next day when she got to work and found out how angry people were.
i had no idea it was a slur! she kept saying. i thought it was just a shorter way to say migrant worker! (headline writers are constantly looking for shorter ways to say things.)
i would have been perfectly happy to stay on the copy desk forever. but one thing about newsrooms: things don't stay static for long.
the copy slot was dating a reporter--a vague, charmingly inarticulate, lovely young woman who could not make deadline. she panicked on deadline, and she was in danger of losing her job. the managing editor had already told her to forget about first run; just write for second run. but she couldn't make second run, either.
so the copy chief went in and had a conversation with the managing editor. when he came out, he called a quick meeting of the copy desk. he told us there was a new rule: all copy editors need to have reporting experience.
i looked around the desk. everyone on the desk had been a reporter at one time or another--everyone but me.
the copy chief nodded in my direction. diane would take my spot on the desk. i would move to days, and to writing. i would cover the Iron Range.
i felt myself grow pale. i was terribly shy, i had only recently learned to drive, i'd never been to J school, i'd never been to the Iron Range, i had no desire to go out into the world and talk to strangers.
and so i was dragged, silently screaming, into the world of reporting.
as it happened, i thrived.
back on the copy desk, in that world of cascading deadlines, diane, i'm afraid, did not.
THE END FOR NOW
3 hours ago