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.