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              It was a blustery weekend in Muskrat Flats. The wind was conducting a symphony as the poplars bordering the vineyard...

Friday, November 9, 2012

Pigs, Slugs and Turtles ... Endangered Species

It has been a pretty quiet year in Muskrtat Flats. It has been so long since I had visited the place I was forced to use the Map application on my iPhone to locate it. Fortunately I have the iPhone 4, so it still shows up on the map.

Gomer and Moe Eckstein hunkered down in the Banquet dining room at the Odd Fellows Hall on the corners of Petersen and McKernan in downtown Muskrat Flats. A full decanter of coffee and plates of warm pastries separated them.

It was just two days after the Nor'easter which had walloped the East Coast. Unlike last year, Muskrat Flats was spared. There was no snow, no devastating flooding, no loss of power or other services. Whole neighborhoods had not burned to the ground.

This storm, in comparison to last year's freakish Halloween blizzard which ground life in Muskrat Flats to a halt, made last year's storm seem like a minor inconvenience. Sandy, delivered only high winds and driving rains. It was nothing like what other parts of the country were suffering.

Moe poured the coffee and handed a cup to his son, Gomer, who was browsing through his iPad for the morning news. Moe sipped his own coffee. He bit into his warm buttered blueberry muffin, the house staple, and looked up at Gomer who was eating a cranbery orange scone in an absentminded way. He peered at the glowing screen as his attention was diverted by his father.

"What the hell is that you're eating?" He asked.

Gomer looked at the scone and then to his father,

"It's a scone. Why do you ask?"

"Well ... you always get the blueberry muffin."

"No, Dad, you always get the blueberry muffin. I wanted something different."

Moe huffed a little grunt and began to focus on his newspapers. Gomer went back to his iPad. Seconds later his father once again broke his concentration.

"Jesus Christ, will you look at this?" Moe barked while he folded the paper and forced the paper into Gomer's hands with urgency.

Gomer looked at the paper and there it was in 48 point type.

Sandy Walops East Coast
 "Can you believe this shit? a Typo in the headline? That kind of stuff never used to happen back in the Day.

Gomer pulled up the story from the same publication on his pad and showed it to his father. 

"Well, it's right here ... they fixed it.

Moe looked at the corrected headline on the electronic device and tossed his newspaper on the table. He sighed and looked to the heavens said a silent prayer to God while mentioning the name of his first newspaper editor. He briefly spied the jack-a-lope on the mantle above the fire. The mutated rabbit had a taunting look on his face. Moe again shook his head and sighed. 

"Something like that never would have happened in my day ..."

Many miles away from Muskrat Flats proper, I sat across from my father, Garry Brown, a veteran newspaperman of 60 years, also enjoying a blueberry muffin. Mom and Dad sipped their coffees. Dad was reading the paper, focusing on the storm coverage. He spotted a glaring typo in the paper and shook his head. I asked what was wrong. Then we began the same conversation Moe and Gomer just had.

"Nobody really proof reads what goes into the paper anymore." I gave him an odd look. 

"How can they not proof read? Someone has to do it."

He explained, 

"They do proof read the stories but the way the newspaper is put together these days with all of the new technology is backwards.  When I file a story these days, I write it on my lap top, send an email to the website. They publish on the website first and then the editors take the content off of the website for publication in the newspaper. A lot of the part timers and stringers, use terrible grammar, poor punctuation and spell check doesn't always work in their favor. You can correct a story online, but you don't have that option once it is in print. Also, there are no space restrictions on line. Last week my hockey story was cut in the middle. Online it was complete with two pictures."

I recalled the last time I went to the newspaper building a couple of years ago. I was doing some publicity work for the Drunk Stuntmen and dropped off a press release and a copy of their latest CD for review by columnist Kevin O'Hare, whose reviews were published in many Newhouse Newspapers. 

As I walked into the building, the first thing I noticed was that it was sparsely populated and far more silent than I had recalled the newsroom to be when it was my playground as a child. 

My father reminisced, "When I started at the paper in 1952, we were publishing 4 daily papers,  The Morning Union, The Evening Union, Daily Republican and the Daily News. We also published the Sunday Republican."

Then the Springfield dailies were published  by a fourth generation scion, Sherman Hoar Bowles. The previous three generations of Bowles', all named Sam, began publishing in Springfield in 1797. 

Sherman, whose mother, Elizabeth was the inspiration for the character "Beth" in Louisa May Alcott's novel Little Women, also had interests in comic book publications in Holyoke as well as interests on various other companies including Western Union. 

Then, the newspaper building was located on Cypress Street in the North End of Springfield, where the Peter Pan Bus Terminal is now located. The photo department was in a house, located next to the newspaper building.

Garry described a typical day covering a sporting event out of town. It began by first, locating the local Western Union Office. After the game which included securing  pre and post game interviews, he would type his story with a portable manual typewriter. "I used to hate changing those typewriter ribbons." He recalled.

He would then take the story to local Western Union office where it was delivered to Springfield by Pony Express. 

Okay, just kidding it is not that bad, the story was sent to a Western Union office located inside the newspaper building by Morse code (not kidding). The Western Union operator would type the story where it was handed off to the copy editor.

Worst case scenario, if a phone was available, the story was "called in" by the reporter who read it to a copy editor who was typing on the other end. 

Garry recalled, "One time Paul Donahue, a Daily News reporter and I went to cover a tournament in Elkton, Maryland. It was awful. There wasn't even any grass in the infield -  it was all dirt. Back then each paper sent their own reporter so we traveled together. There was nothing there, no Western Union, no public phone. So Paul Dee drove to Wilmington, DE while I typed my story in the car, so we could make it to the Western Union and get the story in by deadline. 

After the story was proofed and corrected for grammar, spelling and style, the copy editor would bring the article to the proof room for final approval.

From the proof room it would be brought back to the the line-o-type operators who sat a keyboard in front of  a monstrosity of a machine attached to a tank of molten metal in which a lead "Pig" was suspended by a chain.

The operator would then type the story for the third time. These machines would spit out columns of lead matrices or "Slugs" line by line. The slugs had raised text in a mirror image. These were then transferred to a composing table, a heavy duty cart on casters called a "turtle." There, the page was laid out on a grid in the lead type. The layout of the page was sketched out on paper by the editor. Headlines and cut lines for the pictures were written. The page was laid out with blank pigs for pictures which would be replaced with engravings when they arrived.

Engravings and classified ads were produced by another company, P and B Engraving located in what was called "Ad Alley" near the Student Prince on Fort Street. Photos were sent there to be engraved. Then they were transported to the newspaper building by a guy named Hymie. "Nobody knew his last name. He would drive us nuts by refusing to go and pick up pictures we needed."

"I'm going at 11:00." He'd say with a smirk. 

"We had to proof read the pages upside down and backwards because the print was a mirror image and you were standing opposite the layout guy. If there was a typo, we had the "line guy" who just corrected typos." Garry continued,  

"It would come out of the machine piping hot, The line guy would throw the lead slug across the room to you exclaiming,  "Watch out this one is heavy." I'd catch it doing the hot potato with it and we'd put it in the page."

When completed, the page was turned until a semi-circular lead drum which would be affixed to the press.

At the end of the day, that day's production of lead pictures, text and headlines would go into the "hell box" where they were melted down and used again.

Quite the process. It was hot, it was smelly and oily. It wass about as far a cry away from desktop or online publishing as we know it, and still be in the Alpha Quadrant

One time, Garry recalled, his editor Joe Mooney, anxious to get the completed page to the next step in the production did what occurred on a daily basis, in the composing room.

"He pushed the turtle, down the line. First of all he pushed a little too vigorously, second there was no one there to catch the rolling table." 

Since it was such a hot environment the door to the back stairs was propped open. They watched in horror, minutes from deadline, as their completed page disappeared into the stairwell and began bouncing down the stairs. 

There used to be legions of people involved with the production of the dailies. There were beat reporters, columnists, photographers ... a local bureau in every city and town. There were press men, line-o-type operators, composing room workers, editors. Copy boys, People hanging "tapes" which were perforated and punched yellow ribbons of paper which corresponded to stories coming over the AP or UPI wires. These tapes could be automatically read by line-o-type machines. 

My sister Melissa hanging tapes in the early 70s

There were people responsible for the "agate" also known as the box scores. It was a busy, noisy colorful environment. Clouds of cigar, pipe and cigarette smoke hung in the air.

As the 12 o'clock deadline approached cup after cup of vending machine coffee were consumed, things got busier, hotter and louder. The anticipation of making deadline was exacerbated by cavalier attitudes of folks like Hymie, who were going to get the job done on their terms. Or guys like composing room worker Vinnie Falcone who would appear in the doorway of the Sports department at 12:02 AM and ask,

 "So, are you working tonight?"

"Of course, I'm here aren't I?"

"No, I mean are you working TONIGHT?"

Of course this was happening while the staff was on deadline, anxiously waiting for the story to come in from the reporter in the field. Waiting for the results of the St. Louis game, the farthest West baseball team at the time or the results of the NASCAR Modified Feature race from Riverside Park.

"With all of that going, with all those steps. We still got the papers out on time. With no mistakes or typos." Garry stated.

Garry still makes his morning run to the local Big Y where he gets at least four of the local and national "Dailies." The Springfield Republican, The Boston Globe, USA Today being the core. He used to get some of the tabloids like The NY Post, Daily News or Boston Herald. Mostly to enjoy  the liberties the editors would take with their headlines.

An example being a recent story in the New York Daily News about a jilted male model who allegedly murdered and castrated his fashion reporter lover who was 40 years his senior. The focus of the story outlined steps the model's lawyer was taking to lay the ground work for an insanity defense for his client. The headline for the story simply said,


Garry buys the morning papers out of habit. It is just what he has always done. As part of his calling as the consummate newspaper reporter. He needs to see what is going on in other papers. He could do his reading or research online, and does. But there is something comforting about holding that paper. It is tangible evidence of his life's work. Even if the evidence is less than permanent, it is still evidence of a lifetime of work spent as a reporter, editor, and columnist.

It is a reminder of a lifetime of local high school sports and years on the road covering hockey, football and basketball games. Newsprint in his hand was the end result of trips to far away and exotic cities to cover World Series games, the Super Bowl,  or the Stanley Cup. 

The morning paper is what he battled to produce for 35 plus years when he was a fixture in the Fenway Park press box, next to his dear friend Carl Beane when he was still doing spots for WARE AM radio. 

Six weeks worth of newspapers awaited him as he returned from Winter Haven or Fort Meyers, FL where the Red Sox held their Spring Training. He went through them all.

Garry is the seasoned veteran who knows what it takes to do the job, a job which is hardly recognizable from the one he was hired to perform back in 1952. About the only thing that is the same technology-wise is the keyboard on his laptop.

He started out with the manual typewriter, which gave way to the electric typewriter. Transmission of stories became easier with the emergence of the teletype, also known as the "Mojo Wire" a slang moniker bestowed upon the machine by Hunter S. Thompson. This machine could transmit pages of your story over the phone line. 

Then computers began to infiltrate the work place. Reporters in the field were using archaic random access memory word processors which sent the story through modem cups with a telephone hand set. The word processors got smaller and more efficient and became the laptops we have come to love and depend upon.

Inside the newspaper building lead or hot type, gave way to cold type. Pages in the composing room were laid out using strips of text printed on photographic paper affixed to the pages with wax utilizing rulers and x-acto knives and varying sizes of black line tape for tools. The now useless line-o-type machines lay dormant, in rows up in a dark corner, with their reservoirs  permanentlyclogged with hardened lead and collected dust.

The layout process in the composing room finally gave way computerized pagination programs. The advent of desktop publishing and the opening of the electronic frontier changed publishing forever.

The fall out from all of these technological strides in the production, publication and dissemination of media; the albatross which must be worn; the main casualty in the battle; can simply be summed up in one word - Jobs.

There is no Western Union office in the newspaper building any more. That was a full time job. There are no longer the number of full time reporters, editors or copy people. When Dad began working in Sports, there were eight full time writers in that department.

There are no proof readers huddled in a room meticulously pouring over incoming text. No one is taking obits on the phone. Funeral Homes email them, print ready to the paper these days. There is no longer a need for tape hangers. The racket - the background noise produced by the wire service machines has forever been silenced. We don't even hear the high pitched whine of modems any more.

Guys like Hymie don't exist anymore. There are no more people in the composing room. Digital technology has changed the Photo department. Titles like Reporter/Photographer are evidence of the streamlining of departments and personnel. 

As the publishing world forges forward into the electronic frontier, there is almost a reverse effect that Manifest Destiny had on the United States. As the country grew and territories gave way to states, populations, manufacturing and commerce increased. As electronic publishing moves forward, very simply, less and less people are required to do it.Therefore there are less eyes on the prize causing the quality of the end result to seem - compromised,

I'm not casting stones. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to have witnessed all of these changes and advances. I am lucky to have the opportunity to simply write what ever tripe happens to pop into my head and publish it on line with the knowledge that someone out there is actually reading it.

Garry, again, was shaking his head the other morning as he read the profile he wrote about one of the players on the local American Hockey League team, the Springfield Falcons. The player's photo appeared twice, side by side with one of the pictures obscuring some of the text in his column. An obvious error with whomever did the computerized page layout. He simply closed the the paper and went to the computer to read his article online.

Garry continues to write. Even though he is "Retired" he is not quite ready to write his Swan Song. He still has a few more words up his sleeve to devote to his one liners, his grandchildren and Venus the Labrador Retriever. Still plenty of time to be "Just sitting and wondering ..."

All I need to do is click "publish" in the tool bar above this window and I will once again be ...

Running hard out of Muskrat Flats.