Hot Metal

In which The Author takes you on a trip back in time

Sometimes my research for the Street Names Project takes a turn in a totally unexpected direction. I proved this last week, as I told you in And Another Thing… It happened again this morning.
As I’ve mentioned previously, Aberdare Library archives old editions of the Aberdare Leader on microfilm. There’s also a card index under numerous headings, listing the articles from its launch in 1902 to the mid 1930s. (After that, though, you’re on your own!)
Fortunately for my purposes, the cards pointed me to the issue dated 1 December 1934. I racked it up on the new machine and scrolled through to page seven. Sure enough, the item I wanted was exactly where the index said it was. (If only it was that easy these days, eh?)
I made a few notes and was about to return to the starting point when I spotted something in the adjacent column. And them coincidences struck again!
Yesterday I had a rather amusing exchange of emails. On Monday I’d followed up my recent appeal on behalf of local librarians (see Profiling the Present) with a letter to the editor of the Cynon Valley Leader on the same theme. The group editor from Media Wales had kindly taken the time to reply, although I admit that, to begin with, I wasn’t sure what to make of it:
A shame you had to slag off our newspapers in your blog! Apart from that, a couple of good posts.
However, I pretty well agree with you on most counts, certainly the fear of the digital black hole. I can’t understand how we are all sleepwalking into this disaster.
I have been a journalist with Media Wales for more than 35 years, starting with the Gwent Gazette (sister title to the Leader and Observer) and I have seen all the changes since the days of hot metal.
I regret we can no longer give the service we used to, but nowadays money matters most. We try to keep up the good work on our local papers with a smaller and smaller resource.
But just know that we DO care and we do our best.
Cheers,
(signed)
I emailed back to apologise for touching a nerve, and we ended up having quite a pleasant correspondence. And that’s where the coincidences kicked in again. Rowland had texted me on Thursday afternoon to see if I was in town. We ended up going for a pint (I know, I was surprised too!) and bumped into ‘Jack’ Wood, who also worked on the Leader back in the day. The omens were propitious already.
Anyway, what I found on the reel this morning was an amusing article by ‘R. E. Porter’, on the trials of producing a local newspaper.
As I’ve told you before, I toyed with the idea of a career in journalism when I was in my early twenties. When we were involved with the Cynon Valley Profile, Rowland arranged for us to follow the progress of a typical Leader, from initial news-gathering, through the editorial process, and finally to its production at the huge Celtic Press works in Dowlais.
This was shortly before the whole production process was revolutionized by the new technology, which had already swept away the old Fleet Street and led to running police battles with the print unions at Rupert Murdoch’s new base at Wapping. It also (in the words of Private Eye) baffled at least one pissed old hack of my acquaintance.
I doubt if anyone entering the profession these days would recognise the term ‘hot metal’ – although I remember it being used as a catchline for HoTMetaL on a book on Web design, back in the mid-to-late 90s.
The article I found this morning is an intriguing flashback to a part of everyday life which has changed unimaginably even in my lifetime. Anyone coming to the media now will find it impossibly quaint and old-fashioned. It brought back some happy memories for me. In an attempt to redress the balance in favour of the journalistic profession, I thought I’d share it with you…

“The Local Rag”

BRINGING OUT THE LEADER IS A STRENUOUS BUSINESS

“Behind the Scenes” in Our Office

We are quite aware that we are often dubbed “the local rag” by many of our 25,000 or so readers (who, however, would be extremely loth to give us up). But bringing out the Leader is a more strenuous and exacting business than you people think.
Indeed after three days of working at extremely high pressure (perhaps twelve hours a day) to give you the week’s issue of news, views and advertisements (so that you know on Thursday almost everything that has been going on for the past week) we see the “formes” clamped on the printing machine and hear the rumble of the rollers as it sets off on its weekly grind at 9 p.m. (approximately) on Wednesdays, feeling that we are well worth tuppence.
It is surprising how few of you 25,000 or so people who read us every week know anything definite as to how we are produced. You know us by the black sign, with golden letters “Leader Offices”, swinging in the breeze outside our office in Cardiff Street, but your familiarity with our day’s work ends stops short at the counter of our “front office” where the dark young lady or the auburn young lady or perhaps even The Editor himself or one of his assistants answers an enquiry or accepts a news offering or an advertisement (professionally dubbed ad). No doubt you take the remainder of our establishment for granted; you know that the paper is printed somewhere or other, you know there are reporters who write it (you see them at everything interesting that goes on in the Valley).
Let me give you an intimate glimpse of us “behind the scenes”. We are a self-contained establishment but like Gaul of old we are divided into seven parts, each of which has its contribution to make to the production of The Leader.
The front office where the two young ladies before mentioned preside is in effect the commercial department. They take in and book advertisements, answer inquiries (which, like auctioneers’ lots are too numerous to mention), conduct the sales accounts, despatch parcels to news agents all over the Valley, and read proofs (of which more anon).
SANCTUM SANCTORUM
Through the glass panelled door (in the background) and down a long passage is the heart of the establishment, the editorial office (where Mr Porter once a week is privileged to shape these “intimate glimpses” on a noisy typewriter). Well lit by two large windows and furnished with desks, chairs, telephone, waste-paper baskets, and the usual accessories, and a book-case crammed with reference books, files, etc, etc, it is a centre of activity throughout the week.
Here the staff reporters consume many pencils and vast quantities of paper in writing up their “copy”, and budgets of news and notes from correspondents in all the towns and villages of our area are edited and arranged for “setting” by our printers. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday (increasing in volume and rapidity each day) “copy” from these outlying districts pours in until at times it threatens quite to engulf the Editor and his assistants. Each correspondent writes up his material prolifically, and the task of editing is a difficult one, needing great concentration and knowledge of the affairs of the day. Mis-spelt words have to be corrected, redundant phrases deleted, poor construction improved, libellous matter keenly watched for, flattery and exaggerated criticism all ruthlessly cut out. In addition, the Editor and sub-editor have to decide the importance of a paragraph, to see that the right “angle” of a “story” is exploited, and finally to place head-lines and sub headlines on all features.
NEWS ANGLES
Correspondents sometimes attach too great importance, or insufficient importance, to a story, for instance, the man who waded knee-deep into the River Cynon and pulled out a child who was never in any danger of drowning is not worth the half-column of extravagant drama and superlative praise a correspondent has given it, while the case of an unfortunate paterfamilias, who, sitting to Christmas dinner with his family, inadvertently ran a fork into his eye is worth a great deal more than the three lines another correspondent gave it, tucked in at the end of a lengthy funeral report, and deserves a bright “write-up.”
Then correspondents too frequently allow “a gloom to pass over a village” when a resident dies, or too regularly commence a concert report with “the large and appreciative audience who filled the hall to capacity.” Hackneyed phrases and cliches, as far as possible in the rush of the day’s work, have to be deleted and more original openings given to paragraphs.
Then the copy is taken down to the linotype room in the basement, which is probably the most interesting place on the premises. The linotype (of which there are three here) is a wonderful machine, worked by a key-board similar to that of a type-writer. Skilled operators work these machines, which, roughly, turn out about a column of matter per hour.
THE LINOTYPE
When the key is pressed a matrix (or little mould) for any letter, figure or sign in our language drops from a magazine above the key-board and moves across on to a tiny bar. Words are tapped out on the key-board, and the moulds, with appropriate “spacers”, drop on to this little bar, move across into a drum, where through an aperture, a mere slit, molten lead from a pot heated by gas, is pressed against the moulds, and the line of type reproduced in metal is trimmed by a knife to the column width (13 cms). When the line has been made, the moulds move back out, and an iron “arm” descends from the rear of the machine, picks them up, and passes them on to a cunningly devised iron “conveyor,” which drops every mould back into its own compartment in the machine. Type of various sizes, in capitals or “small” letters can be used on these machines, including the bold type used to give prominence to certain important sentences or paragraphs in the news. The linotypes, by the way, are driven by an electric motor.
These lines of type are then placed on a “galley” and taken into the “stone-room,” where a proof is “pulled” of the columns of matter, and sent back upstairs with the manuscript “copy.” Each proof is then corrected by one reader, while the other reads from the “copy.” All proofs are then carefully looked over by one of two persons in the Editor’s office, and afterwards sent back downstairs to be “revised.” This is done by the linotype-operator re-setting each line which contains a mistake, while a compositor takes out the “bad” lines from the galley and replaces them with correct ones. The corrected “galleys” are then shelved in the stone-room to await “make-up.”
THE STONE
This department is named from the great stone table upon which the paper is “made up.” The foreman-printer, who is the “make-up” man and has a number of assistants, has iron chases (square frames on the “stone”) which are divided into columns by brass rules. The type, according to positions occupied by weekly features or the importance of news stories, is then fitted into the iron chases which, when filled and clamped with iron “keys,” become “formes,” each forme being a page.
Large advertisements, in the meantime, are being “set” by hand in the composing room on the top floor, from the advertiser’s manuscript “copy,” and are read and corrected in a similar way to the type set on the “lines.” When complete these advertisements are brought down and fitted into their places in the formes.
Photographs have to be sent away to engravers to be copied onto zinc “blocks,” which, in the same way, are fitted into the chases to make the complete forme.
The formes are afterwards carried into the machine room adjoining, to be placed on the big “flat-bed” printing machine, which turns out about 1,200 to 1,500 copies an hour, which are then placed through a cutter and folder, all worked by electric power.
Two pages are printed on Tuesdays, four on Wednesday mornings, and the remaining four are left to be filled with the late news on Wednesday, to be completed by about 8.30 to 9 p.m., and put to bed about 15 minutes afterwards.
ZERO HOUR
Wednesday night on the “stone” is the most exciting and strenuous time of the week. Copy is pouring down from upstairs to the linotype room, the machines are in full operation, chattering like machine-guns; advertisements, perhaps, have come in late, and stone-hands are anxiously watching space, for it is possible to “over-set” and to find yourself with two or three columns too much for your space.
The stone-hands are experienced in this work, however, and it is seldom that this happens.
Slowly the space is filled up, there are awkward little spots at the foot of columns to be filled up, but resourceful workers on the stone by juggling with type and the aid of small “fill-ups” finally get the formes filled, and there is a great to-do of flattening and testing, and then the last four formes are carried to the machine.
The most terrible thing that can happen on a Wednesday night (or indeed any other time) is to drop one of these formes, and see the type go “pie,” thousands of lines scattered haphazard on the floor with several hours’ work necessary to sort them back into the right order again!
Happily this seldom happens (we hope we are not inviting ill-luck this Wednesday evening by saying this!) and by 9 to 9.30 we are safe on the machine.
“O.K!”
The first two copies are carefully scrutinised and examined for errors previously undetected, then when the Editor gives the “O.K.,” the machine starts on its first 1,000. The major portion of the first edition of the paper is ready for the sellers by 6 p.m. on Thursday.
There are other departments to our establishment, including the printers’ “hell,” where cast type is melted to make ingots, to be fed again to the linotypes next week; the paper room, where (as its name indicates) various kinds of paper is stocked, and the hand-setting room on the top floor, where the contents bills are set.
Alas! our office has not the picturesqueness of those peculiar establishments in New York or Chicago newspaperdom as depicted on the screen. We do not sit at our type-writers with our hats on, and our ties off, chewing cigars, and at odd moments wisecracking into a telephone.
However, there is excitement enough in bringing out the Leader—though you may call it the local rag … and after all, don’t all the newspaper magnates who beat their drums and thunder out their condemnation of governments always agree that the “weeklies” are the backbone of journalism in Great Britain?
There are no dominating personalities here to be referred to; the Leader staff is a team, pulling together.
So let me end by expressing the hope that I have provided you with some interest in giving you a glimpse “behind the scenes” in our office.
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