Pasting up ADN in the ’80s

January 6, 2010 at 10:24 am | Posted in alaska, anchorage | 2 Comments
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We didn’t call it ADN in those days.  The crew in the Production Dept. knew it as “The Knightly Blues” [not sure why it was knight instead of night, that was a private joke I didn’t get].  I worked as a pasteup artist there for four months in 1983 and about a year and a half in 1986-87.  I was thinking about those times recently as ADN has been shrinking, cutting staff and looking more and more endangered.

In 1983 they were four years into new ownership and publisher Kay Fanning was still on board.  There was a good sense of camaraderie and mission, as we took on the entrenched, conservative Anchorage Times.  The entire staff was assembled in the loading dock area periodically for pep talks.  The new ownership wasn’t necessarily popular amongst the locals.  I was glad they saved the left-leaning paper, but there was clearly a culture clash underway with McClatchy bringing in columnists and features that were popular in Sacramento and Fresno but untested here.  Suffice to say that Miss Manners didn’t make much of an impression on the rough and tumble atmosphere of Spenard, Muldoon and the Mat-Su.  By my second stint, they had moved to their new location near DeBarr and Bragaw, and the dynamic was a little different.  We had a lot more room, interactions were more formalized.  The investment of new offices indicated they were confident they were going to beat down the Times permanently.

Each day’s edition was assembled from a variety of sources — advertsting sections, pre-printed and shipped from elsewhere, were collated on an assembly line in the press room with sections [laboriously] produced in-house, then bundled and shipped out for delivery.  ADN employed close to 500 people then, and the Anchorage Times had about half that many.  Together they had almost 90,000 subscribers, and the peak of their competition in the mid-’80s.

This will be tough to explain to people younger than me who don’t recall a non-computerized world; or in my case, a time when the computers didn’t do very much.  Terminals in use in the 1980s ADN editorial offices didn’t have a WYSIWYG interface, and the Compugraphic machines used in the Production Dept. didn’t even have much of a screen — just a couple lines of characters flying by, in a slight delay from real time with markup codes displayed along with words.

All of the editorial and ad content that was text only, scrolled slowly out of two machines [redundancy in case one was broken] on 3″, 6″ and 12″ wide white chemical-coated paper.  Each letter was individually exposed to the paper, by shining a light through a filmstrip [one strip for each font] attached to a high speed spinning drum.  The drum moved at varying distances from the paper roll in order to change font size.  All of this, and the accompanying offset printing press, allowed a drastic increase in speed of production and allowed reporters to work on stories hours closer to when the finished papers left the building — compared to the hand-set metal type era that preceded.

The crew of pasteup artists assembled all of the pages and advertisements in the in-house produced sections.  The ‘A’ and ‘B’ sections of the paper were finished up just before deadline, minutes before the first proofs rolled off the press at around 1:00 AM.  The rest of the sections [Sports, Comics, Lifestyles, magazine, TV guide, etc.] were completed a few hours or up to a week before.

When I first walked into the Production Dept. on a Spring ’83 afternoon, it was located in a compound on Potter Dr. just east of C St., in a collection of office-warehouse buildings.  It was cramped, bursting at the seams, a buzzing hive of frenetic activity; people rushing around carrying folders and loose stacks of paper, carefully stepping around obstacles and others rushing frantically in the other direction.  There was a bank of tall cabinets with an inclined surface for building pages, where several people worked on a dozen or two pages simultaneously; and three rows of desks for building advertisements adjacent, where eight or ten people were working on ads in various stages of completion.  A lot of the workers, and the editors, advertisting reps, typesetters and several others overseeing the work were smoking cigarettes, and there was a thin haze of smoke floating in the upper volume of the room, and floor fans set in the corners attempting to purify the atmosphere.

But before I saw anything else, the first person I encountered looked at me through coke bottle thick glasses, and with a perfect cat-like voice purred, “Rrrowr!  Don’t step on my tail!”, and I looked at the floor and noticed he was holding a long ribbon of rows of tiny type that was dangling in loops and splayed out on the floor, blocking the narrow circulation path I was negotiating.  This guy [who was the editor’s brother, I later learned] was building the classified ad pages — arguably the most challenging daily task in the department.  In order to be more competitive, the classified deadline was set at 2:00.  Around 2:30 the entire collection of classifieds spun out of the machine on a 3″ wide strip.  Then the margins were trimmed, run through a trimmer with two razor wheels, set a distance apart to trim as close as possible to the lines of text on both sides.  Then hot wax was applied by running the several foot long ribbon through another machine.  Both the trimming and waxing required a lot of finesse, and there were plenty of ways it could go wrong.

Now our hepcat classified artist had assembled all the parts, but there was plenty more to do before he could put the dozen pages to bed by the end of his shift at 4:00.  [Incredibly, I thought] he built the whole section by beginning and the end and working his way back to the front page, cutting in the number of ads that fit in each of 12 columns per page, adding section headers separately.  In the other part of the paper the gutters between columns were about 1/8″ wide, but the classified columns almost touched, and he added hairline border tape gutter lines separately.

Some of the ads [real estate, cars and employment, etc.] included custom company logos.  These logos were provided separately and each one was pasted in over a place marker that was part of the ribbon of print.  The logos were called “bugs”.  [Everything had a weird word there — I joked at first about needing a decoder ring, but one just had to learn and deal with it, and it was sort of fun… though I was tempted to pick up the phone, dial someone’s extension at random and just pile on all the jargon at once: “Yeah, i put the bug on the old maid, and the slug nipped the story while we were waiting for art, but we put it to bed.”]  The places where a bug needed to go were marked thusly:

* * * BUG * * *

But after too many of these were accidentally printed, the marker was changed to:

# # #

I gained even more respect for the classified guy, after I found out more about what was involved building the other parts of the paper.

All of the pages and ads were accompanied in their production journey by an 8-1/2 x 11 sheet [green for pages, pink for ads].  The green page was a ‘dummy’ [a sketch indicating position of headlines, stories, ads and other elements on each page.  The pages were built on heavy paper ‘flats’ [somewhere between card stock and poster board] with the column layouts and page border pre-printed in non-photo blue with the newspaper’s logo at the top. 

When the stories appeared, usually in groups, a page at a time the pasteup artist rapidly built them in place according to the dummy.  The stories were sent out a couple inches too long, and the pasteup artists tacked them down gently at first, starting at the beginning and fitting everything in, with the remainder of the story parked in the margin on the RH side.  When it was ready, an editor was called in to make “cuts”, by crossing off sentences or parts of sentences to be removed, counting individual lines and making sure the story would fit in the space provided.  Sometimes the story below would be moved up or down a little, if one story could be more easily cut than the other.  A lot of times the story ‘jumped’ to the back page of the section or an interior page, so that had to be coordinated.  Then the cuts were made by x-acto knife, with the editor watching over the shoulder.  If a sentence was shortened, the pasteup person had to cut out a period and move it into place, on a tiny triangle and held in place with a tiny piece of tape! 

The page pasteup artists, the sharper ones at least read the stories as the pages were built, and sometimes made helpful suggestions.  You know how, sometimes you’re reading a story and the first time someone is mentioned, they are mentioned by full name and explanation of their role — and each further mention is by surname only?  And sometimes sloppy editing can result in the first mention being deleted, and you’re reading along, and Simpson said the timing was unfortunate because the spokesperson got ahead of the CEO… and wait a second, who the hell is Simpson?  The sharp pasteup people caught these and similar lousy edits, and would point them out.  “Are you sure about this one?”

Building display advertisements was not always the most appetizing task.  A lot of work, not as rewarding as working on pages.  We had to deal with the ad sales reps, if there was anything we really couldn’t figure out that couldn’t be ironed out in the normal back and forth of proofs and revisions.  Some of the reps seemed sort of crazy.  My overactive imagination pictured them trying to sell ads for seven papers at once, getting clients confused and simultaneously handling sales of salad bowl sets, hair dye and Russian brides.  [They seemed that stressed out!]  Certain ads were a hell of a lot of work, a nightmare really — such as those 2/3 page Brown Jug ads that were crammed full of price listings in type as small as the classifieds.  Edits couldn’t be reliably done by x-acto only, since the typesetters had limited capability of retrieving previous work, you had to be cautious that errors previously corrected didn’t reoccur.  Anything that wasn’t type [or borders and lines, done with tape] was custom logos, photos or graphics [all called “art”] that had to be shot by the Camera Dept. [they also photographed the pages for turning them into press plates, and “stripped” the negatives that were the intermediary step, removing dust, hairs, shadow lines caused by pasteups on too-thick paperboard], converting photos into benday dot images.  There was sometimes a “screen” [gray-tone appearance] that was part of a graphic, or spot color/s [solid or screened] that were done via overlays, cutting amber colored film off a clear plastic backer on a light table, and adding target marks in the margins to align the overlays for the camera.  My experience with silkscreen printing in college art classes well-prepared me for cutting overlays at ADN.

There were many sideline tasks that  I loved.  Probably the best was building the comics pages.  All of the pages, Monday through Saturday were assembled on Saturday night.  Each strip was cut out from a photo reduction of a proof as it arrived from the syndicator in the mail.  My experience building those pages in 1987 led me to suggest changes a few years later — it was my idea to put the strip titles and bylines vertically on the side, as they are today, rather than above the strip as they used to be.

I got frustrated at the compartmentalization of roles there.  “We’ve had trouble with artists here before,” the Production shift supervisor told me once.  I didn’t see it that way, of course; strongly believing that suggestions for improved procedures, modes and process should be considered on their merits, regardless of where they came from.  A typesetter buddy and I talked about the culture there on a slow night while we were reorganizing clip art galleys in the ad dept. next door.  She said, “Well, they’ll just tell you they’ve been running newspapers for 150 years and you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I’ve often wondered whether more imaginative leadership could have prepared them for the current crisis, especially since it was predicted since around 1990 or before.  When I think about my experience there, I remember that we got a lot done [an impossible amount, really], we integrated new technology and techniques and were pretty nimble and dedicated.  There was a sense of urgency and an aspiration of quality that was diminished, I think by removing their competitor in ’92.

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2 Comments »

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  1. Great memories. I started my career in journalism as a pasteup artist at the Anchorage Times in the late 1980s. I eventually became a photographer and a features writer for the Times. And I was there on that summer day in ’92 when the doors closed for good. The contacts I made there led me on a great adventure as a journalist that took me around the world. I still have a scar on my left-hand index finger from repeated slices of the x-acto knife. I love that scar. Your post really captured what it was like – the scene was the same in the Times building on Fourth Avenue. I can almost feel the hot wax on my fingers. Thanks.

    Dillon

  2. We stumbled over here by a different page and thought I might as well check things out. I like what I see so now i’m following you. Look forward to exploring your web page again.


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