A family’s journey from hand-set type to hand-coded hypertext
The Internet killed the newspaper.
No, it’s the economy, stupid.
Or overleveraged publishing chains. Left-wing columnists. Whatever the cause, change is in the air of the publishing world, but it’s blowing faster than ever.
From the cover of Time magazine to a slew of bloggers, the changes sweeping the news business are an untiring meme lately.
Newspapers big and small are stopping their presses, not to replate with the latest breaking scandal, but to lay off their staffs, shutter the doors, retire the nameplates.
It may be news, but it’s not new. My family has been involved, off and on, in the newspaper game for more than a century. Each generation saw shifts in society and advances in technology challenge their publishing acumen.
My great-grandfather got into journalism in 1900. George M. Smith began writing for the Naperville (Ill.) Clarion fresh out of high school. After attending Wheaton College, just outside of Chicago, where his father taught, he worked his way through a succession of reporting jobs.
In 1913, he purchased the Du Page County Tribune, a weekly in Wheaton, setting himself up as editor and publisher.
Printing a newspaper in those days was a labor-intensive operation. Every line of type was set by hand, using individual die-cast metal letters, thousands per page.
Hot lead and Linotypes
In 1915, the Tribune purchased a new typecasting machine – a Linotype. Headlines still had to be made up by hand, but the body text of stories was cast in lines – slugs – by molding hot lead. Linotypes were complex mechanical contraptions, prone to breakdown, with 90-character keyboards.
The paper was successful under George’s leadership. To speed production, he invested in another. In 1933, in the midst of the Depression, it became a daily, and the nameplate was changed to the Wheaton Daily Journal. A subscription to the solidly Republican paper ran 5 cents per week.
My grandfather, Robert Smith, followed in his dad’s footsteps, writing a column for the Journal, and studying journalism at South Dakota State College – where he met my grandmother Eileen.
She’d been active in her high school newspaper, which was a full page in the local Milbank (S.D.) Herald Advance, printed every week. She studied printing and journalism at South Dakota State before graduating in 1938.
“There were not that many women in printing – really just a few of us in the whole field of journalism.
“At the college, we set some type by hand, but mainly with the Linotype. Working the hell box (where miscast slugs and wrongly-set type were discarded, to be sorted out later) wasn’t much fun. We had to go through and pull out all the letters and put them back.
“Everything was done by hand. The letterpress was hand-fed, which was a lot of work.
“Bob was very good at setting type. I suppose it came easy to me. I’ve been able to do a lot of computer work – at the museum and such – because of it, using a different keyboard than a typewriter.”
They both put themselves through college working for the college press – writing, proofreading, making up pages.
World War II came soon after my grandparents graduated, interrupting Bob’s endeavors in journalism with a stint in the South Pacific for him and California for Eileen. Two boys also arrived, my uncle Joel and my dad, Steve.
After the war, the Wheaton Daily Journal responded to its growing market.
“Everybody brought two papers – the Chicago paper (Tribune) and the Journal. People were working in Chicago, taking the train in.”
Many commuters began to identify more as Chicagoans than as members of their formerly sleepy suburbs. The ubiquity of radio and growing television market – pioneered in the ’30s by The Chicago Daily News – challenged the small suburban publishers.
George Smith died in February 1949, having spent his life putting ink on paper, telling stories.
My grandfather and his two brothers stepped in to run the family business. Bob took over as editor, the others managing the business side.
Hand-set to high-tech
While the presses weren’t hand-fed anymore, pages were still cast in hot metal. Steve Smith – my dad – recalls the press room as a noisy, messy place.
“My father used to come home with burns” from working on the Linotype, he recalls. “You talk about a complicated machine. And that was a tough bunch of guys. He had a crown on one tooth from getting hit with a wrench by a pressman.”
The changing business and inevitable conflicts among the brothers led to a sale of the Journal in 1953.
Bob went into teaching, first for a local high school, eventually becoming a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. Before he died in 1975, he was working to move the college’s program to a new computerized system.
From hand-set to high-tech, in a lifetime.
My dad went to college to study printing just as technology was shifting.
In the late ’60s, newspapers were moving to more-efficient platemaking processes and high-capacity web presses.
Colleges were still teaching outdated photoengraving techniques, even as the new technology penetrated the business. A career based on a fading process didn’t seem too viable.
Besides, the art department held more attraction. It didn’t take long for my dad to drop his journalism and printing courses.
My journey through journalism began in high school, where I learned how to type, badly, and paste up a news page by hand, using hot wax and type output from a primitive computer system at the local Prescott Courier.
After some schooling at the University of Arizona, I wrote and edited copy for a string of Tucson alternative papers whose names are mostly lost to history.
I served a stint as editor and publisher of ¿K? Magazine, an arts and culture monthly, in the mid-1990s. Despite the streamlining of the desktop publishing revolution, print publishing remained an expensive proposition.
Learning the code
In the late’ 90s, I moved into Web design, learning an alphabet soup of languages: html, xml, js, css and more.
A few years ago, the Citizen was kind enough to take me on, and eventually let me manage the Web site.
In the short time I’ve been here, the technology we use has dramatically shifted. From basic html pages to rich applications that feature video and databases, the addition of reader comments and forums, the focus of the Citizen online has changed along with the culture of the Internet.
But the impressive values of the Citizen staff have remained: accuracy, fairness, truth.
This may well be the last piece I write for a daily newspaper. It leaves me with a bit of an empty feeling, sitting at my desk, preparing for the Citizen’s last edition, knowing that my family’s history with the printing press has stopped rolling.
The family paper, having changed hands several times through the years, continues as the Wheaton Sun – a suburban weekly that’s part of the Sun-Times group.
Yes, they’ve got a Web page.
And like many newspaper chains, the Sun-Times recently filed for bankruptcy.
I hope to carry on my ancestors’ legacy of reporting. Given the trend, that will have to be in some online-only capacity. I’ll miss the smell of fresh ink, but I enjoy the 24/7 challenge of keeping the news fresh.
No matter if it’s delivered by a paperboy on a bike, or via the never-ending stream of the Internet, it’s all about telling stories.
Ink in the blood
Many Citizen staffers have families with long histories in the newspaper business.
Alan Fischer’s father, George Fischer, was in the newspaper industry his entire life. He started as a carrier for the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald as a youth, and held a number of jobs there before becoming a pressman. He brought his skills here, working as a pressman for Tucson Newspapers from 1965 until his retirement in the late 1980s.
B. Poole’s mom, Norma Poole, and sister, Cathy Rowe, were typesetters for newspapers in Illinois during the ’60s and ’70s.
PK Weis’ grandfather PK Weis Sr. was a reporter for the Moberly (Mo.) Monitor in the early 1900s. Senior began his career as a printer’s devil when he was a young boy.
Polly Higgins’ grandfather Rathbun R. Higgins wrote a column called “The Stamp Man” for the Chicago Heights Star from 1948 to 1960 and resurrected it for the Columbus (Ind.) Republic 1967-82.
Garry Duffy’s father, Joseph L. Duffy, was an assistant to Roy Howard, of Scripps-Howard newspapers, in the late ’40s and early ’50s.
Fernanda Echavarri’s great-grandfather Jesús María Benítez Martínez, was a columnist for the local daily in Querétaro, Mexico, from 1973 to 1997.
Randy Harris’ grandfather was circulation manager of the Danville (IL) Press-Democrat from the age of 15. His mother was women’s editor for the Marion (IN) Chronicle-Tribune in the ’60s and ’70s.
Bruce Johnston descends from three generations of journalists on both sides of his family. Both of his great-grandfathers owned weekly newspapers in Canada; one of them brought the first Linotype into the country. The papers passed on through the next two generations in his family. One still publishes today, although no relatives still work for it.
Ray Suarez’s grandfather Edgar worked for TNI in the mailroom and advertising. Grandmother Beatriz was a switchboard operator, while Ray’s father, Stephen, worked in the composing room. Aunt Selina works in circulation for Gannett, while another aunt, Eloina, worked the switchboards. All told, Ray says that his family has put in 117 years working for TNI and the Citizen.