In order to understand what has happened to the journalism in the 21st century, a good place to start is to learn about newspapers the way they used to be before the Internet changed everything. Using the New York Post as an example, this was how newspapers used to work in 1968.
The newsroom at the New York Post was a big open space, with twenty individual desks for the reporters, arranged in two rows so the reporters could face the editors. The desks were metal Steel Case single pedestal work stations, each one furnished with a Remington Noiseless or an Underwood manual typewriter on a drop-down table insert designed to put the keyboard at a comfortable height for the user. The telephones had dials, not keypads.
Off to one side of the editorial space, there was a large horseshoe-shaped work table, with room for six or seven people to sit around the rim of the horseshoe, while one person sat in the slot in the middle of the horseshoe. This was where the copy editors worked.
Behind them, there was a glass enclosed room with six teletype machines constantly clattering away, receiving news stories from the wire services. There was always at least one copy boy (and they were all boys back then) sitting there, tearing off the stories as they came off the wires and running them into the News Room. This was not considered a plum job, but it was a foot in the door, and the copy boys who drew that job were always the first people in New York to find out about everything going on in the world.
On the other side of the room, parallel with the copy desk, was the editorial suite, an island of Steel Case desks that had been pushed together so that the people sitting at those desks could make eye contact and speak in normal tones to one another. Seated at these desks, in order of importance, were the managing editor, the news editor, the city editor, the assignment editor, and several assistant editors.
Between the editors’ suite and the copy desk, on the near wall behind the editors, there was a heavily insulated door that led into the composing room, where the type was set, pages were laid into their forms and the plates from which the paper was actually printed were made. It was a hot, dirty, noisy, dangerous place…but it was the cauldron in which daily newspapers have been brewed since the first world’s first daily newspaper, Post-och Inrikes Tidninga, put out its first edition in Sweden in 1645, some 369 years ago
There is never a time when a daily newspaper newsroom is unoccupied, although it is sometimes more occupied than others. At the New York Post, there were three shifts. The Day Shift (from 8 AM to 4 PM), was responsible for producing the final edition, which hits the streets between 3 and 4 PM. The Night Shift (from 4 PM to Midnight), had no edition to produce, unless a breaking story requires the rare phenomenon of an Extra Edition, but was responsible for gathering and writing news stories that broke during their shift. The Overnight Shift (from midnight to 8 AM), was responsible for producing the morning edition of an afternoon paper, called the City Edition.
The managing editors – and there were four or five of them to cover all the shifts – were there to represent the management, not to manage the operations of the newsroom. Their job was to review everything that goes into the paper on their shift for libel, slander, and violations of company policies.
The news editors decided what goes into each edition of the paper. The first thing they did, when they arrived for their shifts, was to read the most recent editions of each of the city’s six newspapers, including the Post. They kept track of previous Post stories that required follow-up, while they tore up the other papers, picking out articles they wanted to cover in their next edition. (Note: in some shops assignment editors did this.) This was a big job, and it had to be done quickly, so everyone contributed by pointing out articles that deserved attention.
Next, and for the rest of the evening, the news editor began the process of reviewing all of the incoming material to identify stories the paper should cover for the next edition. This required reading the press releases that had come in during the past 24 hours, reviewing the wire service reports, rummaging through the leads submitted by reporters from the tips they have received, and checking now and then with the copy boys in charging of monitoring the emergency channels to see if anything interesting was going on out there in the city that never sleeps.
Once the news editor had decided what the paper was going to cover that night, subject to any late breaking stories that might arise to push others aside, he passed the budget – a list of stories to be written – over to the assignment editor. The assignment editor apportioned the work among the reporters who were available on that shift. Some of those decisions were easy, because there were “beat” reporters who covered certain stories regularly, becoming experts on their subjects.
Sometimes, it was not so easy, when the beat reporters had to be rousted out of their beds (or someone else’s bed) to cover a story. In the days before beepers and cell phones, beat reporters were required to phone in their locations so that the assignment editors could track them down. Other leads, the ones that did not fall into any beat reporter’s category, went to general assignment reporters, utility infielders who can handle just about anything thrown at them.
The city editor was in charge of laying out each edition of the newspaper, deciding what goes where. The managing editor role in the layout process included making sure that articles critical of a given company or industry did not bump up against advertisements from those entities by appearing on the same page, or the next one.
The chief copy editor, also known as the “slot man” (regardless of sex), was in charge of the work flow on the copy desk, passing stories out to the copy editors, also known as the rim men, who checked the articles for spelling, grammar and punctuation. The slot man then takes the stories back and checks the rim man’s work. Very methodical.
Reporters from the night shift would come and go through the evening to write up the stories they have covered during their shifts. Most of them were gone by midnight; the ones that remained later were grumpy, at best, trying to finish their stories and go home to their fragmented lives. The night shift was the worst of the three with respect to family life, but that was the shift that most of the star reporters worked, including the columnists, sports writers, theater and arts critics.
There was a special group of reporters, called rewrite men (again, regardless of sex), who did just that, taking stories from other newspapers, press releases, and wire service reports and reworking them, adding facts and figures, scrounging quotes from previously published articles (because they cannot call the sources after midnight), to produce the filler the paper needed to keep the advertisements from bumping into each other.
Rewrite men perform one other function. On late breaking stories, when there was not enough time for the reporters to get back from a story locations to write their own articles, reporters would dictate their articles via pay phones to the rewrite people, who then wrote the final versions of the stories while a second writer took notes to make sure the primary rewrite man did not miss anything of importance.
Now that the players have taken the field, this was how the game was played: Unless they were pushing deadlines, reporters wrote their stories in one fell swoop, usually typing no more than one double-spaced paragraph per page, leaving lots of room for the inevitable edits. The articles were typed on “books” consisting of six sheets of newsprint cut down to letter size, interspersed with five sheets of carbon paper. (There were no copiers in the City Room. There were no electric typewriters or fax machines either in 1968.) Under deadline pressure, they sent their stories to the copy desk one paragraph at a time.
The writers kept the sixth copy for reference. The fifth copy went to the assignment editor, to show that the work was done. The fourth copy went to the news editor, who reviewed it for content. The third copy went to the city editor, who decided where it would go in the paper. The second copy went to the managing editor who reviewed it for libel, slander and violations of company policies. The first and best copy went to one of the copy editors, who reviewed it for spelling, grammar, punctuation and word usage before handing it to chief copy editor, who reviewed it again for spelling, grammar and punctuation,along and reviewed the copy editor’s corrections as well.
The reason for that backwards order was that the sixth copies were barely readable because no one could hit the keys on the Remingtons and Underwoods hard enough to make a seventh copy legible. The edited copies then went BACK to the reporters who wrote them to retype the article, making the necessary corrections. There were two good reasons for this practice. It provided very tangible feedback to the writers about the problems the editors were having with their writing, and it ensured that the Linotype operators had a clean copy to work with.
The corrected articles would then go BACK to the copy desk AGAIN so the corrections could be checked before the article was set in type. There was a reason for this repetition too. In 1968, the New York Post was still using hot lead Linotype machines to compose the paper. A Linotype machine composed text one line at a time by dropping a sequence of letter molds into a line of type (hence the name of the device) that was then filled with molten lead to form what was called a slug.
Stories were composed by fitting the slugs of cast type into a special frame, called a galley, A small proof press was used to “strike off” copies of the galleys, which were called “proofs” because they were used to prove that the article was ready for publication.
If a single character or punctuation mark was missing or incorrect on any given line of type, that line would have to be reset, the galley would have to be broken up and the corrected line of type inserted to replace the one with the blemish in it…..and if that change forced any characters onto the next line of type, the entire paragraph from that point on would have to be recast, and the whole proof-reading process would have to be done again, with a fresh set of proofs going back into the city room.
From beginning to end, this process required that every article that went into the paper was read at least 17 times by 10 different people before it was published. Today, in 2014, for online publications, that number could be as little as four, three, two…or just one…and some people just do not think that is good enough.
NEXT: WHY NEWSPAPERS WERE BETTER ONCE
Click Here for Part One of this Series: Where Do New Stories Come From
Commentary by Alan M. Milner
Look for me on Twitter:@alanmilner