Newspaper strikes and how I got hired

My son-in-law, Jeff Holden, recently pointed me to a story about the big NYC newspaper strikes of the 1960s, which triggered a mass of memories:

There were a number of big newspaper strikes in the 50s through the 70s, often having to do with the switch from hot type (Linotype) to cold type (lithography), which put a lot of compositors out of work. I was actually less aware of the big one in New York, as I was in college at the time.

In her autobiography, Personal History, which won a Pulitzer, Katharine Graham of the Washington Post recalled a nasty typographers strike in 1975 in which the compositors did a lot of sabotage.

The Oregonian and the Oregon Journal, both published by Newhouse, weathered a long and rancorous strike in 1959-1960. Someone shot up the home of Don Newhouse, and his injury shortened his life. The NLRB ruled the strike was illegal, and the union was busted. When I started at the paper in 1976, it was still considered a scab publication, and it was a long time before it was able to hire first-class reporters and even longer before it was allowed to win a third Pulitzer, in 1999 (the first was for editorial writing in the 1930s, and the second was won by reporters William Lambert and Wallace Turner in 1957 for uncovering corruption involving local government and big unions. Turner  honored the picket line and never returned to the paper. Starting in 1999, The O won several subsequent prizes, including the one for public service, which is the most prestigious.)

The Oregonian and Journal merged in 1982, which was when my career started taking off. All of a sudden the paper was way bigger, as nobody was laid off. The Newhouses even had a pledge that no one would be laid off for economic reasons, which was important because other papers cut back when newsprint prices rose, which they did cyclically.

How times have changed! One woman who was laid off recently was the daughter of longtime publisher Fred Stickel. My friend Mary says that on her last day, Friday, she went to HR to sign the last papers and the idiot new hire who helped her (all the great HR people have left) actually told her, “Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.” One cringes.

The change from hot type to cold did impact my career. I actually started at a six-edition-a-week paper in Tulare, Calif., as the Saturday proofreader when I was in high school and junior college. There were still the two Linotypes, so I learned all about how a hot-type operation worked. There was also one optical typesetter; as the operator typed on a regular keyboard, a paper tape was created that was fed to the typesetter, which had a spinning glass disk through which light shot through the letters onto photographic paper. The brand was Mergenthaler, made by the same company that had developed the Linotype. (A Linotype produces a line of type set in lead, as opposed to the single letters produce by a Monotype, higher quality for use in publishing books.)

The Daily Cal newspaper at Berkeley was usually typeset at a non-union shop, and the folks there sometimes let me type on the new machine, so I was later able to work for print shops before I got a newspaper job. I learned how to read the perforations on the paper, like Morse code, sets of six holes in various forms. I’m not able to immediately fine a guide to that code on the Internet, but I’ll bet it’s there somewhere.

When I came to try out on The Oregonian’s copy desk in ’76, the company had just gone to cold type a few months earlier. Everyone was scrambling to learn the new technology. I had an enormous leg up from having set type. The editors were so impressed that I knew how to CODE headlines (you had to tell the machine what font and size to use) that they didn’t really care if I knew how to WRITE headlines. They hired me anyway.

The first thing that impressed my about reading other peoples’ copy was that they didn’t write well or grammatically. I really was shocked; I though everyone wrote pretty clean copy, that, for instance, people who wrote books just wrote them. I had no idea then how important editors really were.

So that’s how I came to work at a scab paper that later got its prestige back.

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