Thursday, November 12, 2015

My tiny time machine

The chocolate sphere in my hand may look like a malted milk ball to you, but to me it's a tiny time machine: I pop the chocolate treat into my mouth and suddenly I'm transported back to the early 1980s, when my college newspaper staff held a weekly layout marathon fueled by diet colas, grapes, and a big bag of malted milk balls.

Those were the days of manual layout, when we would use scissors to cut typeset sheets into long strips of copy, run them through a waxer, and then lay them out on paper ruled to indicate columns and inches. 

We were armed with sharp exactos, metal rulers, and copy rollers but it still took a while; we often worked well past midnight on a Tuesday, which made Wednesday classes a bit hazy. Mistakes could be costly. Run the copy through the waxer upside-down and you'd spend the next 20 minutes carefully scraping wax off text. A dull exacto blade could tear and wrinkle the copy, while a sharp blade might veer off track, slicing through words or even flesh.

Sometimes staffers didn't show up, leaving the rest of us to do their work as well as our own. Sometimes they showed up eager to argue about issues that seemed really important at the time: When does a music review become newsworthy enough to go on the front page? How much detail do we provide about a student's suicide so we can tell the truth without sensationalizing the gory act? Where is the fine line between reasoned critique and ad hominem attack? 

The work and the talk were different every week but one thing remained constant: diet cola, grapes, and malted milk balls. The big challenge was keeping drips and dirty fingers off the strips of copy, but somehow we managed, most of the time.

These days most college journalists lay out pages electronically; they may have some of the same debates we had 30 years ago but I'll be they wouldn't know what to do with a waxer, an exacto, or a long strip of copy. But give them a bag of malted milk balls and they'll know where to put them. Student journalism: dedicated to truth, justice, and the American way, and, like many other labor-intensive group endeavors, fueled by chocolate.    

1 comment:

jo(e) said...

Oh, I remember the days when "cut and paste" wasn't a metaphor. I loved the smell of the hot wax, although squinting to make sure everything was straight could give me a headache.

Malted milk balls remind me of Halloween -- that's the only time I had them.