Technology and Tools at Work
Spaces at The Washington Post:
The daily production of a newspaper required space, manpower, and machinery working together. With great speed and efficiency the stories, pages, and editions of the paper moved across The Washington Post building before they were distributed around the region and across the world. The domain of Deaf printers was the composing room, a large space that organized workers around equipment and tables.
Tools of the Trade:
The work of printers involved the skilled use of tools and technology. While many Deaf printers were trained on letterpress and linotype printing in residential Deaf schools, the changing nature of the newspaper industry and introduction of new modes of production replaced much of the familiar equipment. As a result, in the later decades of the twentieth century, the composing room of The Washington Post contained a mixture of tools and workspaces.
Hot Metal Printing:
At the end of the nineteenth century, the development of the linotype machine produced a revolution in newspaper printing. Previous methods used handset, movable type for relief printing. With linotype machines, printers could produce lines and pages of reproducible text at great speed and efficiency. For decades, the linotype was central to the production of newspapers, in a process known as hot metal printing.
The linotype was a heavy piece of industrial machinery. It used molten lead to create molds of type pressed into lines of text. A linotype operator received the copy, or the text for articles and other materials which were prepared by reporters and writing staff in the newsroom. Seated at the front of the machine, the operator would key in the copy on the special 70-keyboard, which had separate keys for upper- and lower-case letters and punctuation. As the keys were depressed, small metal molds were released from a magazine at the top of the machine in order, forming a row of text. After the line of text was completed, hot liquid lead from a melting pot located on the side of the machine was poured over the molds and the line of text was cast. Each of these lines of text were known as slugs. The slugs slid down into a metal tray and cooled. Multiple slugs were gathered in the tray, in order, forming a galley or block of text. After the copy was keyed in, the operator would deliver the completed galley to the compositors in make-up.
In the composing room, compositors received the heavy lead galleys, organizing them into page columns with spacers and other elements at a long table. Occasionally editorial staff would meet with compositors to make corrections and fine-tune the layout of the page. A metal frame was fitted around the blocked page and locked into place.
Compositors then pushed the heavy lead pages onto rolling carts, known as trucks, and they were taken to the Proofing Machine. The page was rolled through the machine and inked, producing a test print. Proofreaders quickly reviewed the test page for accuracy. When spelling errors and other mistakes were identified, an updated copy was sent to linotype operators who produced corrected slugs. The compositors replaced the slugs in the page.
After receiving final approval, a newspaper flong, or a temporary paper mold was formed from the metal page and used to create a cast for the printing press. The heavy lead page, made up of galleys of slugs, was then melted down and reused.
At the end of the 1960s, teletypesetting was introduced to the composing room. Teletypesetting automated the typesetting process. Teletypesetters used specialized typewriters to produce the copy from the news room. As a key on the typewriter was depressed, it perforated a thin paper tape with a specialized code. The thin reel of paper, now covered in small holes, was then fed into a modified linotype machine for printing.
The linotype machine was equipped with a special device on top of the keyboard. As the paper tape was fed through the device, the code was interpreted into keystrokes on the linotype, producing slugs of text. The use of teletypesetting reduced the need for linotype operators. Instead, a single monitor could equip and maintain multiple linotype machines simultaneously, replenishing lead and depositing completed galleys with compositors for make-up.
The transition to phototypesetting and introduction of computers changed the nature of newspaper printing. While the transition occurred over decades, the smell, sound, and danger of hot metal printing increasingly disappeared from the composing room. New workspaces emerged featuring rows of computer terminals, a dark room and other photo technologies. While the various technologies overlapped in usage, the transition to cold composition phased out older printing approaches.
Video display terminals were introduced in the late 1970s and early 1980s at The Washington Post. Using an early computing technology known as Ray Comp, page text was composed on specialized keyboards at box-shaped computer screens. Reporters and editors in Washington DC, or at other branches, could type, submit, and edit stories directly to a shared database. In addition to proofreading, editors could insert instructions according to the computer’s parameters on column sizing and length. With the push of a button the text was transmitted to a phototypesetting machine for printing.
Photocomposition permitted the printing of type on photographic paper as an image. Photo-sensitive paper, film, or plates were used to capture page text, images, and other elements by exposing the page to bright light.
The page elements then moved to the compositors, who combined them in a process known as paste-up.
The workers employed in paste-up were also known as compositors. They worked at large angled desks arranged in rows in the composing room at The Washington Post.
Compositors usually worked from an outline or template of the page contents provided by the newsroom. This was affixed to a clipboard above the workspace. As workers received the articles, headlines, graphics, and other components printed on photographic paper, they began the careful process of measuring, cutting, and laying out a page according to the template. Standards for paste-up were strictly maintained and while they often needed to work quickly, compositors were also required to work with precision.
They ensured that each page maintained the correct line and column spacing, and added page elements like line art to distinguish between sections. After the page was arranged and the layout was complete, a thin wax adhesive was applied to the back of each of the page elements. This wax functioned as a glue and the paper was affixed to a stiff cardboard sheet. A roller was used to ensure the pieces were firmly and smoothly attached.
Next, each of the cardboard sheets was sent from paste-up to the dark room to be converted to film. In the dark room, cameras photographed entire pages and output the large negative images on film. These film negatives were used to create plates for printing in the engraving room.
In the engraving room, the film negatives of each page were placed on the light board. A thin aluminum plate was overlaid on the negative. When exposed to bright light, the film image was etched onto the aluminum sheet. These sheets were then fastened to the cylinders of the printing press in the press room.
The change to cold type increased the speed and efficiency of news production. It expanded the creative control of the appearance and arrangement of stories for writers and editors. Unlike hot metal printing, which required the production of lead replacement slugs with each revision, phototypesetting streamlined the proofing process. With just a few keystrokes, text could be changed and reprinted.
The transition to computing technology included the adoption of PC based page design and printing. In the 1980s and 1990s, The Washington Post adopted pagination and Adobe Page Maker as printing tools. Many Deaf printers found themselves retraining on these programs as the traditional tools of printing fell into disuse.
The use of word processors in the production of pages permitted the combination of graphics and text in one screen. The advertising department, known as Ad Control, was quick to utilize computerized approaches as these pages required precision and speed while also requiring a great deal of both text and images. Computerized printing eased the transmission of complete pages from the news room to the press room directly.
In less than fifty years the practices of newspaper printing transformed. At one time a massive undertaking which employed hundreds of printers working in careful concert with reporters and pressmen to produce the daily paper, by the end of the twentieth century the people and tools at the Post were employed differently. The number of printers working in the composing room began to fall as the mechanical tools of typesetting were replaced by word processors and digital production. These changes were spurned by the continuous pressure in the newspaper industry for enhanced circulation, greater production speeds, and full-color digital graphics.
As newspaper companies began to invest in new technologies and initiate the processes of converting the composing room, Union leaders pressed for greater protections for printers, often resisting the use of new technology in a bid to preserve jobs. At The Washington Post, the ITU bargained for a lifetime job guarantee for its printers, which assured their employment as the nature of work changed around them. In addition to this agreement, printers at the Post were given training at work in order to gain the skills needed for phototypesetting and computerized printing.
These transitions to new technologies and workspaces, were not easy for printers with decades of experience in hot metal printing. Some struggled with new keyboards and terminal screens, and others felt the loss of status more profoundly. While printing was, at the beginning of the twentieth century regarded as a specialized tradecraft, by the end of the century, their skills had become largely obsolete.
The experience of Deaf printers suggests that the sense of loss and displacement expressed by many printers was profound. While hearing printers were unhappy with training on new technologies, Deaf printers experienced the added pressure of negotiating access to that training. The strategies implemented for disseminating information and training to Deaf printers relied heavily on some Deaf and hard of hearing workers serving as interpreters and trainers. As interpreters were not in widespread use at the start of this technological transition, access to information was continuously negotiated. These events further demonstrate how Deaf printers supported one another in maintaining work and obtaining information, but it also suggests a marginalization not experienced by hearing printers. The introduction of computer technologies threatened the job of all printers, but Deaf printers were further jeopardized by a lack of communication access.
By the end of the twentieth century the system of employment of printers at the Post changed. The longstanding system of subs and regular workers ended and, while some subs were offered the opportunity for permanent employment, others were dismissed. The work in the composing room had become increasingly outmoded. While the job guarantee from the Post permitted printers to learn new trades in the paper and ensured their continued employment, they were made increasingly redundant.
For a list of sources used, see Works Consulted.