Daily Herald columnist Jim Slusher: Caring about every word has always been 'something to think about'

  • Jim Slusher

    Jim Slusher

 
 
Updated 3/31/2022 3:07 PM

Over the course of a long career, you form memories. Sometimes you want to share them just because they make you smile. Sometimes there is current value even beyond that.

This one dates back many years to my first newspaper job in the 1970s. In those mostly pre-electronic days, newspapers had a "paste-up department" composed of men and women who cut apart long strips of photographed type and, working at large light tables from hand-drawn layouts, pasted the waxed pieces into place on mats representing a newspaper page. These would later be photographed again onto the plates placed on the presses.

 

It was an afternoon paper. I was responsible for the front page, and early every afternoon I would stand next to the paste-up supervisor putting together Page 1. His name was Joe. We would chat amiably about the stories on the page and work out problems when the headlines or columns could not be placed according to the sketched layouts.

Newsrooms and news production were so different then. Everyone smoked cigarettes and you sometimes could barely make out faces through the blue-gray haze that hovered everywhere. Men and women, mostly men, screamed instructions over the clatter of a dozen manual typewriters and the hum of one glorious IBM Selectric. Wirephoto machines coughed up pictures from around the world, multiple teletype machines battered out stories about taxes, murders, fires, laws and everything else you can imagine, one loud metallic smack of a letter at a time, a thousand smacks a minute.

So much has changed. But not the important stuff. More than once when Joe was deftly balancing a single line or word on the tip of a mat knife, edging it into place, he reflected on a particular reason why he considered it so important to put each strip of type, each line, each letter into the right place.

"You know," he would say, "someone reads every word on this page, every stitch of type on every page in this newspaper. I don't mean any one single person. But every picture we paste on here, every word in this paper gets read by somebody."

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He would point his knife at some unseen image in the air in front of him like an artist with a brush or a writer dotting the space with an ink pen.

"That's something to think about," he would add.

It was. And is.

Today's newsrooms -- if we have them at all in this age of Zoom and remote electronics -- are still as a library, the air fouled by nothing more noxious than the scent of microwaved lunches wafting from the cafeteria. Editors stare into the harsh glare of computer screens all day, and reporters, when they're not writing from home or the road, tap away at plastic keyboards. Women fill the ranks not just of writers but of managers as well. The Joes of our business are long gone.

But their message remains.

Yes, we make mistakes, sometimes embarrassing ones. Occasionally, we overlook items that shouldn't be in a story or some that should. Still, I would gladly put any newspaper of today against any from my early career. We may not have Joe around to remind us, but we never forget that every word will be read, every picture studied, by someone. And, really, that's more than just something to think about.

jslusher@dailyherald.com

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