More follows in reverse order

23 Oct

The wires are down at Gospel Oak; no trains. Getting into work’s been an effort all week. Been busy too: big rush for deadline last night on news. What I need is a large coffee and an easy Friday morning on the biz section: my favourite day of the week. A couple of comment pieces followed by a wander through the street-food market for lunch. Nothing too difficult.

Lot of emails from the economics columnist this morning. And here’s another one. What does he want?

Have just filed parts of column in reverse order.
More follows.



It should be said at once that this sort of communication from the economics columnist is vanishingly rare. He is one of the most august and respected of the Tribune’s writers, but he doesn’t act like it. He could file late, dictate his own headlines and dig his heels in over every cut, but he never has, as long as I’ve known him.* He remembers names. He invites his subs out for drinks. And he always files on time.

But not this week: this week was looking a little star-crossed from the moment this email arrived on Thursday:

Please forgive me! I wrote my column this morning and gave it to the Fax people, who failed to send until four hours later, by which time Janet had gone down with flu. I am now off to [senior central banker’s] farewell.

Will type it all out again on my Ipad at crack of dawn, before a lecture I am giving at Queen Mary at 11 am, and see you all later.

Apologies for late copy.


From which it may be deduced: he’s very well-connected; he has a busy and energetic schedule; although past retirement age, he has developed an unlikely but burgeoning aptitude for tablet computing; however – to explain – his preferred method of filing is still to bash his column out on an old manual typewriter, with deletions and additions, and fax it to his secretarial service, where Janet types up a fair electronic copy and emails it in.

Talking of which, what’s this further down in the inbox? It’s from Janet: she’s struggled off her sickbed.

So sorry about today, but I’ve managed to do first two pages attached

This column’s not just being filed once; it’s being filed twice, remotely and simultaneously – once in reverse order, once in the more traditional  fashion. Or at least, not twice in full, but by a method rather like the digging of the Channel Tunnel: start at both ends and hope to meet in the middle. That’s why the economics columnist is filing in reverse. Yikes.

Sub-editing has changed almost beyond recognition since the advent of desktop publishing; so much so that someone like me – a converted book editor with a firm grasp of InDesign – can fit right in. It didn’t used to be like that: when type was set in metal line by line and the printers were in the basement, the skills were quite different. As David Sullivan recounts in That’s The Press, Baby:

“In those long-gone days, on-deadline stories might go to the composing room in takes as they were written. There was no way a 25-inch breaking story could be set in type by one operator, then proofread and corrected in the composing room, if the entire story went down at once, and still make deadline. You would send it down take by take. … When the paper came off the presses, copy editors checked it to make sure that the right headline was on the story (errors here more often than you might think), that an entire take hadn’t been left out or the story failed to end.”

I’ve always wondered what those days must have been like, when subbing was as much about managing a process as it was about checking facts. There might not be a vacuum-tube system at my desk or a press-room messenger waving galleys, but this is as close as I’m ever going to get to finding out. I’ve got an inbox full of takes, some sketchy indications about start and finish and an empty space at the bottom of the page. There might be duplicate material, muddles over ordering or two missing paragraphs in the middle; it’s up to me to notice.  This is  journalism as light industry, copy-editing as administration. Let’s go.

InCopy finishes booting up and I look in the subs’ queue. There appears to be something that looks like the economics column – the full 900 words –  already waiting.

I look over at the chief sub. He looks over at me laconically. “I’ve already done it.”

Looks like there’ll be time for a flatbread from the food trucks after all.

* When you’re a new casual sub, you’re almost invisible: writers who would rather not be approaching the desk at all will sometimes come over, see no veteran face they recognise, look at you appraisingly, and turn away without a word. Others will queue for the attention of a busy chief sub on press night even though all the newbies are free and ready to help.

On the second or third week in our new offices, the economics columnist came over with some corrections during a particularly busy night and, rather than queue, courteously inquired: “Who shall I see about this?”. The chief sub pointed me out and said: “Talk to Ed.” He turned to pick out the face, having never seen me before. “Ed! Hello! Right! Just a couple of things. But what did you think of it? Did you think it worked?” And, immediately, we were two conspiratorial veterans at work in the hubbub of the newsroom: him in this fourth decade at the Tribune, me in my fourth month.


5 Responses to “More follows in reverse order”

  1. Picky October 24, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

    Well, I can tell you what it was like when type was set in metal line by line and the printers were in the basement: it was wonderful.

    Of course handling a breaking story, or any running story, has always been the highlight, but it wasn’t only those stories that were split into takes. The rule was reporters had to write the first par on a separate sheet of copy paper because that might well be set in a larger type and therefore might well need to go to a different linotype machine. Similarly any matter at the end of the story (such as teams etc in a sports story) had to be separate as it might be set in nonpareil or ruby or summat (one of the things that allowed subs to pretend they were as important as the reporters in the moral standings was that we could use this baffling jargon of technical terms). The head had to be on a separate sheet, too, either to go to the specific linotype fitted with that face and size, or if it was bigger than the maximum set-able on the linotypes it would go to the Ludlow room where the characters would be assembled on compassing sticks before being cast. Similarly any longish story arriving on the copydesk late in the day (in those days the copydesk was the place in the composing room where stuff was organised for setting) would be split by copydesk into takes for separate linotype operators.

    All these bits of the story would come together under the control of a “random hand” who would proof them for reading. Or, at least, you hoped they would come together. Amazingly, they almost always did. Mind you, such a complicated system, so intricate and so bewildering to outsiders, gave ample opportunity for sabotage in times of industrial tension.

    • Picky October 24, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

      Those compassing sticks are a cupertino for composing sticks, of course.

      • edlatham October 24, 2013 at 5:00 pm #

        And no cupertinos in those days either! It does all sound so much more exciting than instantly taking a third of a point off the font size in InDesign to make the headline fit, fun though that is. I’m amazed it all worked so well. The older subs round here tell lurid tales of being on the stone at deadline and being presented with proofs that were miles too long, starting to strike out lines and being told ‘Don’t cut paragraphs, son. Cut galleys.’

      • Picky October 24, 2013 at 9:13 pm #

        Certainly the stonehands could be blisteringly dismissive of any signs of incompetence by the stone subs. Equally, if one showed appropriate respect of their very considerable skills, they could be very generous towards a young inexperienced sub.

      • edlatham October 24, 2013 at 10:51 pm #

        I don’t think I’d have made it far in those days. I’m more at home in a “Output warning: image is in non-process colourspace” sort of environment.

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