The Day Jim Bellows Walked Into the Composing Room and Touched the Type

By Barnard Law Collier

Jim Bellows went on to edit the New York Herald Tribune, Washington Star, and other newspapers.

Jim Bellows was a gifted editor, an erudite, high metabolism, Midwestern-minded, high rolling producer of occasionally great journalism. He was skinny, fragile, what people today might call a nerdy looking guy with a sparkle of mischief in his eyes, a droll sense of humor, and a nose for good writers, like Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Hunter Thompson, and others who sketched that era.

I knew Jim first when I was a copy boy and he was a news editor at the Detroit Free Press. He then brought me along as a reporter to the Miami Daily News and later I followed him to the New York Herald Tribune. While at the Free Press he had to learn what the idea and power of trade unions was all about, and how not to get on the nerves of the guys in the back shop who worked with molten lead and thousands of little bars of Linotype.

Jim knew, as everyone else did who was allowed into the back shop of a Detroit newspaper, about the “Don’t touch the type” rules. But Jim would literally shiver with energy and excitement over a page one layout, and he could not always contain his urge to lay his fingers on a piece of headline type still loose in the heavy chases.

The Free Press composing room foreman warned him half a dozen times and Jim listened politely. I knew the foreman pretty well. Slow to burn. One day, when a big story was about to be locked in for page one, Jim wanted to make one last change.

He rushed into the composing room to the page one table and pointed his finger at a headline he wanted bigger, and in his state of design euphoria his forefinger touched one of the 72-point letters. Four compositors and me saw it. The foreman saw it. Jim talked on about whatever for a few seconds more as the foreman slowly pushed the chase toward the edge of the table. Then we saw and heard the entire page of type fall into a pile on the wooden floor.

“Sorry,” said the foreman, “somebody must a forgot to lock up. Have to reset the whole damned page, Jim.”

I can still see the conflicting emotions that passed across Jim’s face as he figured stuff out. Then he smiled and said he was sorry as he shook the foreman’s hand and walked back out to the managing editor’s office to tell him that the paper would be an hour or so late.

As far as I know, from then on Jim and the back shop guys at several newspapers and TV studios all got along just fine.

This Jim Bellows tale is a followup to an earlier post, “Days of Hot Type and Composing Rooms: “You Do Not Touch the Type.”

Barney Collier describes himself as cultural anthropologist, writer,  former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief, and publisher.
P.S. from Barney Collier:

For those who’ve never worked in or visited the back shop of a newspaper before, say, 1970, here is the best I can recall about what the Detroit Free Press composing room was like:

The composing room was the “kitchen” of the restaurant where the “editorial side” provided the words and the compositors turned those words into metal type that when lined up and stacked properly in a lockable frame, called a chase, became the forme for the printed page.

The Wiki link does a good job in describing the complex processes that were involved in molding words on paper into slugs of metal type. This includes the inner workings of the Linotype machines, which were as big as a VW Beetle.

In front of each Linotype sat tough Detroit union men, many of whom smoked the world’s most pungent cigars, and who played the 90-character Linotype keyboards like concert pianos.

The way the composing room guys (no women) at the Free Press saw it, they were the true workers at any newspaper.

The reporters and editors (except for the sports editors) were over-educated fops, too smart by half, who thought the Free Press was published because of them alone, when, in fact, manly, streetwise, tough, and profane union men knew otherwise.

In winter, the composing room, which was separated from the newsroom by kitchen-like swinging wooden doors, was cozy and warmed  by cast iron cauldrons of molten metal that were attached to each hulking Linotype machine.

Then came summertime. Without air conditioning, the composing room was hellishly hot. Even a quick trip into the back shop left you dripping in perspiration, even though the un-airconditioned newsroom was itself hot as a fritter.

In the back shop the guys were heroically immune to the heat. They relished the perfumes of nicotine, machine lubricating oils and flux, as well as the smokes from the smelter cauldrons, and the particular odors of liquid lead, antimony, and tin that rose from the silvery gray surfaces of melted alloy in the pots.

There was always the nice scent of deep fried potatoes in the back shop air, because Linotype operators attached a cut potato to a metal rod and sponged up the unwanted “dross” metal that collected at the bottom of 600-plus degree smelter pots.

The floors of the shop were made of wooden blocks which didn’t mind being splashed and scarred by 600-degree metallic liquids.

Upon the rather bumpy floors were rolled very heavy steel tables on wheels, upon which were placed the “chase,” a heavy steel frame in which the type and the “furniture” (wooden blocks where no type was required) were placed, then “locked up” (the frame is squeezed by a bolting mechanism so that the type is held tightly in place).

By union rules, copy boys (if trusted) were allowed to touch the tables, each of which represented a newspaper page, but they were forbidden to touch any pieces of type, unless asked to do so by a Linotype operator or a foreman.

Punishment was to be banned from the shop, and thus the probable loss of the copy boy job.

The contract didn’t allow editors to be banned from the shop, but, as Jim learned, there were other ways.



  1. Saul Daniels says

    I just stumbled upon your post about Jim Bellows for whom I was honored to work at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. But early in my career I was a copy boy at the New York Times. I must have been there about a week when I was in the composing room with the makeup editor. He scribbled something on a half sheet and had me run it back to the ringman to be set into type. The single slug was set, plopped back into the folded half sheet, and dropped into my hands. I dashed back to the makeup editor hoping to make a good impression. However, in my haste I turned into the compositors’ alley, rather than the editorial side of the stone. Tools were slammed down and the entire composing room came to a halt. Yeah, I was being hazed, but for a moment I thought I had killed the old Gray Lady.

  2. Good story–journalism seemed more interesting before the digital revolution. I miss the noise–people walking around talking, phones ringing, the sounds of typewriters, wire service machines signaling urgents, bulletins, and flashes with bells. Now most newsrooms seem dead silent.

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