December 03, 2022


Jim Nowlan: Ode to newspapers of yore

Jim Nowlan

As a teen in the 1950s, I worked after school and weekends at my dad’s small-town weekly newspaper. I am reminded of those days of “hot metal type” in the back shop, as I observe the fast-fading institution of the community newspaper. There were 16,000 or so weeklies across our nation then, in burgs tiny and larger; fewer than half remain.

In my lifetime, printing technology has moved, you might say, from the Industrial Revolution to the Space Age. On the community news side, we have morphed from the straightforward reportage of the city council meeting, and weddings of your neighbors’ kids, to the oft-uncontrolled acidity of Facebook, which often “lights up” with uninformed, knee-jerk commentary.

My job was to help put out the paper, not write it, so forgive me as I step through the door from the front office to the back shop. My nostrils fill with the pungent, metallic brew of printer’s ink, gasoline (to clean ink off old forms), paper dust, acrid effusions from the Linotype machine and tobacco smoke. I gladly take another deep draught. After all, the intoxicating scent of the newspaper shop tells me important work is going on here: The town’s weekly is produced here, with nearly every household a subscriber, even if a farm wife had to barter eggs with Dad.

I don my gray apron, slip a cupable, steel make-up rule in the front pocket (to scrape lead tailings off the galleys of fresh type) and put a footlong, metal line gauge in my back pocket (with its printer’s measure of “ens” and “ems,” six of the latter to an inch). I am ready for work, joining the other two high school “printer’s devils.”

The small back shop (maybe 20 by 60 feet) is crammed with dangerous, pre-OSHA machinery – hand-fed “job” presses; saw and router for shaping ads from cast-lead “guts” for national advertisers such as General Motors and Ford; California job cases that held the movable type (you’ve seen the case drawers in antique stores); stone-top tables for making up pages; belt-driven paper cutter and more.

And, of course, the “big” newspaper press. Ours was a 19th century flatbed, cylinder press. I stood on a three-step riser to feed sheets the size of four pages of this newspaper (on one side) onto a rotating cylinder, which would meet the moving flat bed of newspaper pages rumbling back and forth beneath me. I used a bit of glycerin to keep the third finger of my right hand sticky, so I could lift a corner of the big sheet, flick it, creating a small rush of air, just enough to loosen the sheet from the stack, which I then slid down to the guides to meet the cylinder.

The aristocrat of the machinery was the Linotype machine. Patented by Otto Mergenthaler in 1884, the roughly 6-by-6-foot iron-and-steel behemoth may have been the greatest advance in printing technology since Gutenberg. The machine replaced hand-setting of type via a spectacular orchestration of hundreds of moving parts. As a backup Linotype operator, I felt much like a church organist, the grand machine above and surrounding me.

The large keyboard was different from the typewriter, and efficient. Lower-case keys on the left, the vowels all close to the third and fourth fingers of the left hand; uppercase letters on the right. The operator lightly tapped a key, which released a vertical, slender piece of brass, called a matrice, or mat, with a letter indented into one side. The mats came tumbling down on a slender belt, from their temporary storage above, into an expandable metal box, where the mats formed a line of type.

This line of type was transported to a place in front of a pot of liquid lead, where type and pot came together briefly, lead injected into a bar, against the indented, now raised, letters, or type. The bars were ejected, still hot, onto a tray with other lines of type. Ingenious, until the 1960s, when even more efficient “cold type” and offset printing came along.

Out in the front office, Dad and his one reporter would cover the school board and city council meetings. The news office was located on the town’s main street and had big plate glass windows. So, whenever news broke, Dad would take a large sheet of newsprint (paper) and use a grease pen to write out the news that “Harold Settles died this morning at 7 a.m.” and the local election results, hot from the county clerk’s office down the street. Cars drove by our office at a snail’s pace to read the latest from Dad’s sheets, hung on a wire with clothespins in the front window.

Each week, Eileen Benedict would make endless phone calls to a list of townspeople. “You have any news this week?” This became the page, or more, of “Personals,” e.g.: “George and Effie Bort motored to Peoria Sunday after church to enjoy chicken dinner with his brother, Mr. and Mrs. Donald Bort. The Donald Borts reported their son Raymond had just completed basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood and was expecting orders to Korea.” This was the Facebook of its day. Newsy, civil.

Dad’s paper was important to our town, the glue that bound us. The paper wasn’t perfect. Dad protected the main street businessmen and their peccadilloes from print — he couldn’t afford to lose their advertising. But overall, the paper was invaluable.

Small-town folks today are wrestling with how to replace community newspapers. Paper will likely be gone, as Facebook and digital platforms spew endless “information.” But who will cover the city council? Who will opine with some authority about the best candidates for the school board? Who will provide the glue, and not the acid?

• Jim Nowlan grew up in the Stark County News, Toulon, Illinois. He is a former small-town newspaper publisher, professor and politician.

Jim Nowlan

Jim Nowlan

Jim Nowlan is a retired professor and former Illinois legislator and state agency director. He has worked for three unindicted Illinois governors.