By Arthur H. Gunther III
The first rule of old newspapering, when there were composing rooms where pages of metal type were assembled for the press, was to make a friend of a printer. Otherwise, he could do you and your career harm.
“Printers” was a general term for anyone working on the production or mechanical side of pre-computerized newspapers, including the typesetters who used large machines to cast type lines of type from lead and compositors who assembled those and other metal pieces such as artwork into a page. The printers were men took years to learn and hone their exacting craft, and they worked in composing rooms that often hit over 100 degrees because of the lead-melting machines.
If you toiled in the newsroom as a page layout fellow, or if you were an editor of any sort, you had to make a printer your friend. They not only produced the type you needed to get pages completed before deadline, a finish line by which your career was daily gauged, but they helped you read the backward type where all your errors lie. Being a friend was not always easy.
As in any profession, there are cheerful and grumpy sorts, competent and more competent, natural “teachers” and not. And, no matter our disposition, we all have good days and bad and in between, so each new session with the individual known as “printer” was yet another challenge in helping give birth to news delivery every day.
Among the printers at my wonderful old stand, the original Journal-News of 53 Hudson Avenue in Nyack, N.Y., was “Big John” DeSevo, whose cigar was a permanent facial feature, lit or not. He was 20 years on the job when I met him, having started as a composing room gofer, then typesetter, then compositor.
I was dummying or laying-out the Local page in those days, which was the second front page, this one highlighting major local stories that did not make page 1 or go inside. It had to have a neat look, this presentation cover, with strong-enough headlines to grab readers and photographs that also caught your attention. John was my main man, the printer who did my page and saved my rear end numerous times.
He could not be bought by false praise or chitchat. If he liked you, and that usually was related to your competence, you did OK with him. If he thought you were a newsroom idiot who hadn’t so far bothered to learn reading type backward, then on John’s bad day, you could be lost. Or worse, harmed.
One morning, near the 10:15 deadline after my own pages were put to bed — sent off to the pressroom where forms would be made and fitted to the rotary printing presses — John was called to the other side of the composing room and asked to work with Tom on an inside page, the one with obits and last-minute news. Tom was a snarly fellow, full of himself and not practiced in the news business. Whatever job he had moving up was too short to learn much, but he had risen to city editor nonetheless, or maybe because that is often how it’s done.
Well, Tom was in a rush. He simply wanted the page finished, and he told John to hurry. John did not hurry. His name was on the page, and he wasn’t going to see mistakes on 35,000 copies. So, he took his time, even with deadline a minute away.
Tom didn’t like that and elbowed Big John, who for once lost his cigar, turned a mighty red, took a deep breath into his 250- pound frame and “pied” the page’s type, all 200 pounds, onto the floor and Tom’s shoes.
“Pied,” you ask? Well, in the great and honorable world of old composing rooms, pied type is jumbled or mixed up. That it was, sitting on the floor and enough on Tom’s shoes and now sore feet.
Tom missed deadline. And not a person in the newsroom, not one in composing ever blamed Big John, who remained with the paper until retirement decades later. Tom? He was soon gone.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This may be reproduced.