« Cassandra was right | Main | A morsel for lexicographers »

A lost craft

While the eulogies pronounced over copy editing are premature — like print newspapers, we’re not dead yet — some of us can recall a related and expired craft because we used to work as editors in the composing room.

Three or four decades ago, The Sun had hundreds of printers in its composing room — Linotype operators, proofreaders, compositors. Members of the International Typographical Union had lifetime jobs with solid benefits, and they ruled their domain. God help the editor who happened to touch a piece of type.

By my time at the paper, technology had eliminated most of those jobs, the computer rendering the Linotype obsolete. The compositors remained, using X-Acto knives or razor blades to cut type printed on photographic paper and paste it on the pages.

The composing room was still their domain. An editor assigned to work makeup had to undergo ritual hazing. If you kept your temper, endured some taunting, remained courteous and respectful, you would get along with them. They would even help you. If you were snotty and condescending, you would pay for it. Repeatedly.

The printers were richly scornful of the college-educated types in the newsroom upstairs, and they delighted to spot errors in headlines and text. They found many of them. The number of errors caught by Bill Gay, Marck Mulligan, John Shanklin and others, and the number of fixes they got me out of, are too numerous to count. That some needling took place along the way doesn’t signify.

The compositors were precise. The page had to look right, with every element in place and in alignment. Though it would have been gauche for them to say so, they took evident pride in their work and in the paper — the more so that they knew that their time was running out.

It was inevitable that technology would advance to the point — as it did some years ago — that entire pages could be composed on computer screens in the newsroom, making the compositor’s job redundant. They knew that the company had long since stopped hiring apprentices and that as printers retired, they were not replaced. Eventually, the last few were offered buyout packages, and a craft with a history stretching back to the invention of movable type was gone.

The technology that eliminated those jobs enabled newspapers to remain highly profitable by cutting labor costs. A similar calculus drives the recent and current reductions of news staffs around the country.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:49 PM | | Comments (7)


In your view, what technology has made what newsroom jobs expendable? I thought cuts were driven largely by the desire to maintain and boost profit margins.

Well, newspaper executives have been blaming the Internet since they discovered its existence a few years ago. Given a choice of profit margins and news coverage, the news providers become "expendable."

When The Sun's previous pagination system was installed, we were told that it would make our jobs easier. This was typical, I'm told, whether true or not.

Now news executives see the many duties of copy editors, such as worrying about grammar, syntax, spelling, factual accuracy, fairness, and the crafting display type to fit in limited spaces, as no longer important, making copy editors even more expendable.
Reporters, their editors and news/wire editors are becoming expendable because papers contain less news.

It was a sad day here when we went fully paginated in 2000.

I always appreciated the skills of our compositors, especially after trying to lay out a goodbye page for a departing editor. What would take a compositor a few minutes took me hours and nearly made me blind from staring at the type so closely.

It was always fun to hang out in the composing room as the sections went to press. That felt like real newspapering! I don't miss having to fight with Sports over the use of the one Atex terminal for re-sends, though. Or sweet-talking the composing machine operator to bump my headline fix to the top of the queue.

Fortunately, not all of our compositors lost their jobs. Some were re-trained on our pagination system.

Yes, the compositors are gone.

But surely you know that the people who use the pagination systems here at the Sun still find errors and call the newsroom about them.


The amazing thing about all this technology is that the tasks haven't disappeared. They've just been shifted, mostly to the newsroom, without the commensurate departmental staffing increase. These tasks then become invisible -- does an editor's job description now include the fact that s/he must apply formatting to stories and edit to fit exact lengths? No wonder spell check has become such a heavily-used tool.

I was one of those compositors, working there for over 37 years. Found this column the other day and brought back alot of memories. I remember John, always a first class guy. Its sad to see we started with over 500 plus printers and wound up with 28 taking the buyout. Times sure have changed, the paper is so different today compared to what it used to be. I'm just so glad when pagination came we had a lift time job. I knew then that with pagination the end was near. I really liked working with the editiors when they came down to the composeing room. I was the News Forman then and it was always stressful until the last minture. I'm really sorry to see what has happen now at the sun, with people leaving, (told to leave) and top notch people not there anymore. Great article, brought back alot of good memories.......

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected