In March 1997 the final edition of the Bramwell Aristocrat was printed. Its content contained a title, in capital letters, on the first page.
“THE EDITOR IS DEAD.”
The remaining five pages of the Southern West Virginia monthly newspaper were blank.
The small-town publication’s editor, Bob Barnett, had plans in place for this final issue before his sudden death.
He had covered the news passionately in life, and in the afterlife continued to sell newspapers.
I was a young Lifestyles editor when “Volume 109, No. 3” of The Aristocrat hit the printing presses. We all gasped when we saw the paper, never imagining someone would have such good sense.
I met Mr. Barnett once or twice, but I didn’t know him well. However, he always struck me as an old-school journalist.
On days when I feel like I’m feeling old, I think back to all the changes I’ve witnessed in this industry during my tenure in the newsroom.
I remember the wax machines and camera rooms and the smell of ink that hung heavy in the air during the afternoon prints.
Some may wonder, “What is a wax machine?”
The answer is that it mimics its description – it’s a machine that coats the back of a piece of paper with wax.
This was necessary because decades ago newspaper pages were “glued” to thick, life-size grids.
Stories and titles were printed to fit a certain space on a page – think of putting together a puzzle, but with content and photos – then sent to wax. A night production team would then use X-acto blades to cut the items and place them in the designated places.
It seems archaic now, and in retrospect, it was.
In our newsroom, each headline and article required lines of code. Editors had to define the length of the title, the number of columns, the font size, the line spacing required, etc. Sometimes it felt like a brutal nightmare.
Once, when I was just starting out, I tried to “wrap” a Thanksgiving story around a piece of cornucopia artwork.
It should have been simple.
This was not the case.
Each line of the story required a different line of code, and for over an hour I tried to perfect the metrics.
The success was not mine.
Finally, I looked up to see Vanessa Hurt, a member of the production team, cut out every word of my story and pasted it manually around the Thanksgiving illustration.
She was a lifesaver in a moment that I will always remember.
Once the pages were glued, they went to the camera room. Again, it’s as the name suggests – a coin-sized camera took a picture of the page and produced a newspaper-sized negative.
These negatives were then engraved on metal plates which were used to print the paper on the press.
The press, by the way, was a gigantic three-story structure that could spit out hundreds of newspapers in minutes.
Unfortunately, our press was taken out of service in 2016. But we all knew in advance that his days were coming to an end. He was old, tired and weary. Our press chief at the time told me it would cost millions to replace her.
With today’s technology, however, this was no longer necessary.
There is no more collage room or camera room or hot wax machine.
Pages are designed on a computer, sent to an off-site printer, then returned to Bluefield for distribution in the morning.
I often wonder what writers like Mr. Barnett would think of this new era, where websites and social media are as powerful as the smell of ink on newsprint in the morning.
It is indeed a cutting-edge era and a modern era, but I believe that the principles of journalism remain the same.
Precision. Justice. Completeness. And speed with the scoop.
Also, don’t forget those catchy headlines that entice readers to pick up the paper.
Samantha Perry is the editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at [email protected] Follow her @BDTPerry.