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Early newsrooms: Light-years from dullsville

By Marilyn Nestor

(Editor's Note: We contacted Marilyn Nestor, a former member of the Pittsburg Sun-Telegraph staff, about the early newspaper office, and she submitted this story. If you have comments, please join us in a discussion about news-related antique machines in our forums.)

Sometime between when they first used movable type in 1351 and today, working as a reporter for a daily newspaper was exciting, challenging and fun.

What I learned as a Michigan State journalism major prepared me for some of it: the who, what, when, where, why and how of the story, copy-fitting, proofreading, recognizing type fonts and sizes, and page makeup. I never had to set type from a type box - blindfolded. Never pied (upset) a box of type.

But no one told me reporting would be a job as far from dullsville as Miami is from Mars. I learned from experience that the best newspaper offices were crowded, noisy, and not-quite clean.

The Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, for example, was all of those.

General assignment reporters had no assigned desks. You took the first empty seat before a typewriter and waited for City Editor Byron Campbell to give you an assignment. Teletype machines chattered wire service stories onto rolls of yellow paper and muffled one-sided conversations of reporters and rewrite men, who talked into telephone receivers--handsets or headsets--as they two-fingered their way around manual typewriter keyboards, taking notes from colleagues in the field or news sources. Police and fire radio calls were monitored from a speaker on a shelf about eight feet from the editor's desk.

Sun-Telegraph Newsroom

The newsroom floor--the world's largest ash tray--got a twice daily brushing from the elevator operator who played janitor with his utility broom because he was the building numbers runner. No one dusted the venetian blinds hanging askew as windows open or closed in season. Once a week, someone would dump Ed Furey's cigar butt into a large metal waste can and start a smoky fire in the knots of carbon paper pitched after use in many "books" of letter-sized newsprint.

The Shout of 'Copy'and Rumbling Presses
Story copies were reciprocally sent to the wire services, which didn't have a large local staff. One copy was spiked on the city editor's desk, where he would refer to it as new details came in. The original went to the Linotype operator, whose fingers danced over a keyboard while hot lead formed slugs of type that made up the story. The newsprint copy followed the tray of loose slugs to a proof reader for checking.

Major stories were updated for each of several daily editions and the front page was re-made to reflect the latest happenings. When the presses rolled in the basement, six floors below the newsroom, you felt the vibrations in the soles of your feet.

Sun-Tele reporters and photographers worked as a team, unlike the competing papers' employees. The reporter alerted the photographer to something he should shoot and the photographer returned the favor, pointing out a likely source for a meaty quote. (We took turns thumbing butter on the competition's camera lens.)

Tricks of the Trade
New copy boys and reporters were treated with cheeky malice by sometimes-idle rewrite men and copy editors. "Take this typewriter ribbon and re-ink it," they'd tell a green copy boy. They'd type up fantastic story assignments fashioned to pique a reporter's yen for The Big Story.

One led the reporter who covered the health beat to call an Ohio university to learn how spider silk was used experimentally in a vaccine to cure juvenile delinquency. I fell for a note that instructed me to ask the grump who covered the police beat about a local source for an upcoming exhibit of Navajo blankets. "Do I look cold?" he snarled. "Ask an Indian."

Copy boys made regular runs for coffee from the corner luncheonette. It came in cardboard containers that turned beige if you nursed your drink or were sent out on assignment before it was delivered.

Watch your Step
Small-town newspapers like the Oxnard (CA) Press-Courier, where I also worked, had no copy boys - the pressroom was mere steps from the newsroom and the classified advertising staff. A Linotype operator could stroll up to the reporter's desk to check a fact or spelling. And woe to the Altoona (PA) Mirror farm page editor who touched the type in the pressroom stone! City Editor Ted Benney would hear the shop steward threaten a job action if that woman ever did that again.

Plastic facsimile machines replaced photos teletyped from afar as the decades aged into the 1960s and 1970s. Photographers parked their muscle-wearing Speed Graphics for cameras that used 35 mm film. Color photos graduated from the Sunday Roto section to the daily pages.

Brown-bagging and Silence Today
Today, newspaper offices aim to be healthy places to work. Smoking is verboten. The windows are sealed against traffic noises and ambulance sirens and the air conditioning usually works. A fine ethic now requires that newspapers pay for meals consumed by reporters and photographers covering service club luncheons and award dinners, so the in-house lunchroom has a regular flow of brown-bagging patrons and their companions using a bevy of vending machines. Coffee cups are no-leak plastic. So is the machined coffee.

I haven't heard a hearty laugh chorus in a newspaper office in eight years. But then - I'm not around them much. I e-mail my stories to the editor from my home-based computer.

Related stories:
Yesterday's Office: "Portrait of an Early '50s Newsroom." by Byron Campbell’s son, Malcolm.
Yesterday's Office: "Ticker Fades With Teletype, Hot Type"

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