Paperwork: So many wonderful tools, but will we learn how to use them?

I needed to do some cut and paste.

I was editing a news story and some paragraphs seemed out of place. No rewriting needed, just a quick cut and paste would get the job done.

I grabbed my pica pole (our version of a ruler that also measures space and font sizes with picas, points and agates).

Now is a good time to note the year was 1967. Newsroom tools were a bit different back then. But ... let me continue.

I slapped the thin metal tool across the canary yellow copy paper and carefully ripped the story apart between typed paragraphs. (All news copy had to be triple-spaced, making it easier to cut apart or pencil in corrections.)

With the story dissected, it was time to paste. I grabbed a bottle of “rubber cement” and went to work. When the story was is order I still had to put a headline across the top to be set in composing.

The designer who put the story into a page layout designated the headline desired. The assignment was scribbled across the top of the copy ... 3-24-1. That meant I needed to write three lines of 24-point type over one column.

Challenging but lots of fun. We had a formula, tested over time, that gave me a head count that varied by headline size and column width. The words I plugged into that one-column space had to fit that count.

The count per letter was always the same. The count total for a given space is what varied. The letter count came down to 1 per letter with a count of 2 for wider type, such as M and W, or 1/2 for letters such as l and i and punctuation.

The rules were rigid. Head counts did not have to fit perfectly .... just close to perfect.

Such editing and head writing was a small (but significant) part of the “labor” of producing a newspaper. While the clock ticked down to a deadline.

The news biz still plays beat the clock as audiences demand information — by the minute.

But still ... man oh man ... it’s a lot easier now. “Cut and paste” is definitely less messy.

It was author Eudora Welty who got me thinking about my early days on the copy desk.

Welty, in a 1972 “Paris Review” interview, was asked if she wrote with a typewriter. Her answer put a new twist on “cut and paste.”

“Yes, and that’s useful,” she replied. “It helps give me the feeling of making my work objective. I can correct better if I see it in typescript.

“After that, I revise with scissors and pins. Pasting is too slow, and you can’t undo it, but with pins you can move things from anywhere to anywhere, and that’s what I really love doing — putting things in their best and proper place, revealing things at the time when they matter most.”

Pins? Well, there was a certain permanence to rubber cement. But pins would have been scattered around the floor and there would have been blood shed.

Besides, pica poles were armament. Very flexible. Perfect weapons in our war against flies. (Still great for ripping out articles. A friend who worked that same copy desk tells me she uses her pica pole to slice pie dough for the top woven crust.)

Yes, now we have many tools to add speed and perhaps efficiency to news production. Perhaps.

In the late 1960s I was a rookie with not much ink in my veins yet, but I was full of myself — my mission. I was a student journalist but I had plugged into a higher purpose.

Our copy desk was what other industries called quality control. Our product was a newspaper. Quality meant making sure stories were accurate— commas to facts.

The demand for accuracy begins with the first questions asked — by editors and reporters and the public. And ends with ... well, it never really ends.

I wasn’t old enough to drink (legally) but I understood the importance of what we were doing. And what the world would be like if we didn’t do our job. (It still feels strange calling it a job.)

I enjoy modern tools, the ease of cut and paste. But I am most grateful for early lessons learned. When I was taught to double check everything.

To ask: who, what, when, where, why and how? And most important: says who?

With all the tools we have now it is so easy to grab a headline and run into the street shouting, “Read all about it!”

Those streets now span the globe and reach millions in an instant.

I’ve dedicated myself to a belief that the more people know the better it will be. I think I still believe that.

But I have to wonder ... with so much at our fingertips now … how much do we really know?

LONNY CAIN is the retired managing editor of The Times in Ottawa and was a reporter for The Herald-News in the 1970s. Email to or mail The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.