Days of Hot Type and Composing Rooms: “You Do Not Touch the Type”

The New York Times  posted a website piece about a plan in 1967 to create a “a second, sparkling newspaper.”
New York Forum, originally called Today, was a pilot afternoon newspaper produced by The Times under great secrecy in 1967. Though it never made it beyond two issues, which were locked away for decades, Forum was a testing ground on which Times editors grew comfortable with the idea that they didn’t always have to do what they’d always done.

The prospect of stepping into this void interested the publisher of The Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, known as Punch.

“At certain moments Sulzberger felt that New York City both needed and would support a second afternoon paper,” Gay Talese wrote in “The Kingdom and the Power,” his 1969 history of The Times.

The afternoon paper would not look like The Times. It would be lighter, brighter and much less dense. The afternoon paper would be written with the sophisticated poise of The Herald Tribune (the most distinguished predecessor of the short-lived World Journal Tribune) and not in The Times’s dutiful, plodding style.

Publishing was different then—composing rooms, hot type, and unions—and the new Times paper never got beyond the two pilot issues. Reading about the project inspired old journalist friends to comment after I posted this reaction to the Times story:

That was age of hot type, composing rooms, and unions. At my first week editing a newspaper in suburban Detroit, I was in the composing room, touched a line of type on the layout of page one, and the composing room went dead silent. “You do not touch the type,” a voice said.

From Shirrel Rhoades: Know what you mean, Jack. I was working for the Sunday Magazine of the Florida Times Union. A piece of type fell off the turtle. I reached down to pick it up to hand to my compositor and he called a strike. . .but the union boss let me off with a warning.

From Ron Cohen: Learned, the hard way, not to “touch the type” in the basement of the Daily Illini in 1955. Via Orville Johnson, King of the Composing Room, a short, slim man with a perpetual cigar stub and a paper hat fashioned out of newsprint.

From Patrick Sloyan: At the Baltimore News Post, you could touch the type with a pencil. Just not your finger. I was in London when the Dirty Digger put a brutal end to all that. Murdoch was cheered—silently of course—by all newsies on Fleet Street when he broke the printers union.

Timothy Hays: I began my career at 20 as a cold-type compositor (and part-time sports editor) on the lobster shift of a small weekly in Santa Monica. There are days I miss the smell of the shop, the type rolling out of the Compugraphic 7200, and my Xacto knife.

From Carey Winfrey: It wasn’t just newspapers. I was producing a television show for Channel 13, sitting on a metal chair in an editing room just off the studio. Finally around three a.m., my fanny numb, I walked into the darkened studio and grabbed a slightly padded folding chair used for on air guests. When the stagehands came in the next day and learned what I had done, they shut down the studio for 24 hours.
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My Detroit composing room experience happened in 1965—most newspapers then had hot type, composing rooms, and unions. In 1966 I moved to San Jose, California, to edit a group of six weeklies. It was the start of the offset revolution.

When it came time to lay out the papers, we went into a room where the walls were essentially bulletin boards and all the stories, strips of paper, were pinned to the wall. We walked around taking stories off the wall and putting them on layout pages. If we wanted to cut a story, we took a pair of scissors and did the cutting.

It often took until 3 in the morning but we laid out six papers, fueled by pizza and soft drinks, with the production costs so low it’d be like buying a bicycle instead of a car.

 

Comments

  1. Ed Kosner says:

    I was 21 on the lobster shift at Dorothy Schiff’s NY Post in the late 50s, sent into the composing room with galleys to trim stories for the first edition. The make-up guys, knowing I was a rookie, hazed me: They made believe they couldn’t understand me, that they couldn’t clip a comma into a period, and they tried to trick me into touching the type in the form on the chase. But it was all good-natured and they made sure I didn’t fuck up on my maiden visit.

  2. Richard Mattersdorff says:

    “”At certain moments Sulzberger felt that New York City both needed and would support a second afternoon paper,” Gay Talese wrote in “The Kingdom and the Power,” his 1969 history of The Times.”

    What was/is the prior afternoon NYC newspaper?

  3. Len Shapiro says:

    Saw your Facebook post on the N.Y. Times putting out the afternoon paper prototype in 1967 and it brought back great memories. I was working as a copy boy at the Times that summer before my senior year in Madison and was actually assigned to the secret project.

    Abe Rosenthal, the man in charge, called me his “gopher,” as in go-fer coffee, go-fer page proofs, go-fer a pack of cigarettes. It was so secret, we were sworn to silence and garbage bins were emptied and their contents destroyed. Rosenthal also allowed me to write an occasional short or calendar item that actually appeared in the prototype. The talent coming and going in that room was amazing. Times legends like Arthur Gelb, Jimmy Greenfield, Mickey Carroll among many others were involved, and Rosenthal was captain of that remarkable ship.

    The prototype was gorgeous. Clean, fabulous photos, good stories, great sports page etc. etc. Sadly, Sulzberger decided not to green light it. I was told car traffic was the biggest concern. It had gotten so bad, even in 1967, they didn’t think they could distribute the paper in a timely manner to the boroughs and beyond. Rosenthal was terribly disappointed, but the consolation prize for him came soon enough when he was named the Times’ managing editor and then executive editor. He had a tough-as-nails reputation back then, but he treated lowly me like a valued member of his staff and was kind enough to write a glowing recommendation with my application for graduate school at Missouri. I’m certain to this day it was the only reason I was accepted.

    What a summer. What a memory.

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