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Jan. 1, 1889: How a great newspaper is made

  • Blog Post by: Ben Welter
  • November 20, 2012 - 9:21 PM
 
 
  Part of a stereoscopic image of the Tribune building from about 1887. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)
On the first day of 1889, the Minneapolis Tribune devoted two full pages that explained to readers “how a great morning paper” was made. The lengthy piece includes a lot of chest thumping. But it also features surprisingly amusing and incisive descriptions of the men – and one "editress" – who produced the paper. The business manager is described as “a grasping individual of stern and unbending demeanor.” The editor-in-chief is seen as both a “hard working man of keen and comprehensive intellect” and “a brainless dude who does nothing but draw his salary and smoke expensive cigars in a gorgeously appointed office.” The telegraph editor “can grasp detail and work with rapidity and accuracy.” The reporter is no fool and his “knowledge of human nature is superior.” More than a dozen delightful illustrations break up all that gray type.

I’ll post a few highlights tonight, and add more as time and energy allow. Be warned: A ponderous introduction, typical of the era, takes a while to find its focus. But it’s worth plowing through, if only for historical perspective, plus a detailed description of how many letters – 458,528, to be precise – were used in a single issue of The TRIBUNE. 
 

TO MAKE A PAPER.

The Process in All Its Details Fully and Completely Explained.
 
How a Great Morning paper Like the Tribune Gets out Its Editions from Day to Day.
 
Especial Work Done by the Editors Who Are at the Heads of the Many Departments.
 
A Glance at the Art Room and the Mechanical Part of Publishing a Morning Daily.
 
 
  Horace Greeley
The modern newspaper man will tell you that when Horace Greeley was doing the work of an apprentice in the little newspaper office at East Poultney, Vt., but little was known of journalism as it is seen at the present day. The boy printer strolled into the city of New York one day five years later, and with $10 in his pocket he commenced life as a journalist. His energy succeeded and 40 years later when Horace Greeley laid down his pencil for the last time and passed from among the army of fellow-workers around him, he left behind a monument of his building that told more eloquently than words of the wonderful progress that had been made in four decades in the newspaper world. Fifteen years have passed since Greeley died, and even the great advance that he saw has been eclipsed. The newspaper of today is a marvel. The reader who sits at his breakfast table in the morning and lays before him the reflex of a world’s doings, seldom remarks as to the enterprise, the money and the system that have been required to place it there. An Emperor in another country dies at midnight. At 7 o’clock in the morning the great army of newspaper readers in America know of the fact, and not only that but before them is a picture vividly drawn of the final scenes around and near the death bed. How was it done? The telegraph and cable played their part; but it was the perfect system that has been completed for the transmission and gathering of news that supplied the facts. All over Europe are stationed keen newspaper correspondents, who cooperate with the press bureaus or their newspaper, as the case may be. The general news of the country is gathered by bureaus known as the Associated Press and United Press. They are syndicates of newspapers who employ agents or reporters in every city in the country to gather news and report to the main offices in Chicago and New York, just as the reporter gathers news for a paper, except that nothing is sent that will not be of general interest the country over or in localities. From the general offices the news is sent to papers all over the country who are entitled to it after paying a large sum for the service.
 
The enterprise displayed in gathering some of the news can never be told. In some instances it amounts to heroism. This is especially true along the coast where only a brave man can act at the time of a terrible storm which is accompanied by wreckage. It is heroism of another sort that prompts the newspaper correspondent to invade the yellow fever district, that readers of the newspaper may know of the scenes of misery in the infected region. The news must be had, and there are hundreds of papers enterprising enough to get it, and men of nerve ready to undertake the most hazardous task.
 
 
 

The "most popular man of all" at a great newspaper was the business manager, whose desk was apparently home to bags of cash.

 

And what a product the newspaper is! The common eight-page paper that one casts carelessly aside is a book of 250 pages, and made in a night! It costs 5 cents, and is the reading book of the world. Millions scan it every day who never look on other print. In the United States the newspapers are read every year by over 8,000,000,000 people. Its wonderful influence is told in these figures.
 
In a brief statement of how a newspaper is made there is no place for a discussion of what a newspaper should be. In a mechanical way the newspaper office is the greatest workshop of the age, and nowhere is such system seen as within its precincts from the time the work begins each day until the last paper has been taken from the press and passed to the carrier, mail clerk or newsboy.
 
The TRIBUNE tells its readers in this issue how a newspaper is made, and pictures in detail how the machinery of human minds works in conjunction in the accomplishment of the task. There must be no jarring. The managing editor is an authority. The city editor and night editor are subordinate to him, but each have as important duties. The staff of reporters are under the control of the city editor, but they have individual responsibilities. As the rolls of copy come in from the telegraph room and the city editor’s room, it is sent into the composing room, where a large force is engaged in putting it in type. The average issue of the TRIBUNE is eight pages, containing 56 columns. Every night for such an issue there are picked up from the type cases 458,528 letters! Before the work of the next night begins those letters are replaced in the cases, each letter in its box, thus making the handling of 917,056 letters, singly, necessary each day to issue a copy of the TRIBUNE. An occasional error appears that has escaped the eye of the proof readers, and the “blunder” is criticized. Think what it is to put those half million pieces of metal in place every night, and it would not seem surprising if there were 10 errors where there is one.
 
And so the work is carried on. There is the advertising to be cared for in the counting room. The numerous “want ads” must be properly classified. How is it done? By the same system that prevails in the office from the editorial room to the press room, where the great rolls of paper are transformed into neat folios that are hurried away to outgoing trains and carriers. Not a train must be missed and not a subscriber must be deprived of his paper at breakfast. The hands of the clock in every room tell when each task must be finished, and there can be no deviation. If important news is coming or comes later than the closing hour it must be told in an extra.
 
The fast press in Greeley’s time has been transformed into an almost perfect machine. From its delivery pass 30,000 complete, folded papers an hour! There is probably a still great advance to come, but whether it comes or not, the modern newspaper office is a systematic workshop that accomplishes its work with ease when compare with even 20 years ago.
 
[There follows a description of the COUNTING ROOM, “The Business End of the Modern Paper.” We’ll skip straight to the brains of the operation.]
 
THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF.
 
A Hard Working Man Who is Popularly Supposed to Live in Luxury.
 
One of the most important parts of the machinery of a great daily newspaper is the editorial department, which on account of the retiring modesty and unassuming manners of its members is least understood by the general mass of newspaper readers whose opinions on all public questions are formed by these midnight moulders of mental clay. It is this department which establishes the character of a paper and gives it its standing in the community.
 
Well and brightly conducted, the editorial department can make a poor newspaper popular and influential; just as, carelessly and weakly conducted, it can depreciate the value of the stock of a really first-class newspaper and plough deep furrows of care on the forehead of the business manager.
 
The foremost figure in this department is labeled the editor-in-chief. His position is both managerial and menial, because he is the nominal head of what is termed the “upstairs part” of a paper, just as the business manager is the nominal head of the “downstairs part,” and because his sense of duty compels him to do anything that any employe of the paper has left undone. As a general rule the editor-in-chief owns stock in the paper and maintains the relation of partner to the business manager. On account of the possession of stock he is allowed to draw a fat salary and to put on airs which are not permitted to those under him. Unfortunately for him he appears different to every one who comes in contact with him, and consequently varies in different minds from a hard working man of keen and comprehensive intellect to a brainless dude who does nothing but draw his salary and smoke expensive cigars in a gorgeously appointed office.
 
To the reporter the editor-in-chief seems a man of brilliant attainments, great good fortune and wonderful erudition, who sits in a superbly fashioned sanctum and dispenses advice to the leading magnates of the town, who go to him with uncovered heads to secure the favor of his opinion on all abstruse matters affecting their respective lines of business, whether they be railroad presidents, bankers, lawyers, real estate operators or clergymen. To the managing editor, his right bower and first lieutenant, he seems a rather necessary evil, who assumes all the credit for the good things in the paper and has a disagreeable way of criticizing all the workings of the news departments in a manner uncalled for and unnecessary.
 
To the business manager the editor is the embodiment of reckless extravagance, and a constant menace of ruin and disaster – a man who thinks no more of a $50,000 libel suit than he does of a $50 advertising contract, and who insists on expensive features and long special dispatches, as if special writers wrote for fun and telegraph tolls had gone out of style.
 
To his two or three associate editors, who fill most of the editorial space with careful and conscientious work, he seems a pleasant office fixture, who generally has on his desk a box of Havanas and who does not do much but talk real estate with long-winded bores, to their great annoyance, suggests live topics to them, which they have already discussed a number of times editorially, and occasionally write a vapid editorial, the authorship of which they are very much afraid will be attributed to them by their respective circles of admiring acquaintances.
 
 
  An editor in chief's gorgeously appointed office.
By the general public, the editor-in-chief is looked upon as a man who reports sermons and prize fights, who only goes to entertainments for the purpose of getting items “to fill his paper with,” who sets the type, edits the telegraph copy, reads proof, makes up the forms and then turns the crank on the press. His partner is supposed to write the advertisements and collect the bills.
 
But as a matter of fact, the editor-in-chief of a metropolitan daily is a man whose shoulders bear a heavy burden of responsibility. He is obliged to follow the current of discussion on public matters throughout the country, and must at the same time make himself master of all the intricacies of every local question. He has to decide quickly and correctly on the method of treatment of every matter of importance that arrives, and must investigate even the most technical matters with the utmost care in order that his utterances may be intelligent and to the point.
 
A part of his time is taken up in consultations with the managing editor about the advisability of securing certain matters of news or procuring certain features, while other portions have to be given to the base and sordid considerations of the business office in company with his partner. Besides this he has to find and assign subjects for editorials to his associate editors and then carefully read the copy they turn in, and when necessary mould the sentiments expressed so that they will agree with the policy of the paper. Not a small portion of the editor’s time is taken up by his correspondence, which is always extensive, and by receiving and conversing with the large number of people who call on him to suggest improvements, impart state secrets and valuable ideas, criticize editorials, solicit subscriptions to manufacturing enterprises and charities, and talk at length aimlessly on a thousand and one topics which are of no interest to either talker or talkee.
 
And so his wearisome but fascinating grind goes on from day to day. His hours run from 10 in the morning until 1 or 2 the next morning, and if he is ever idle he doesn’t know it. He is always busy and always occupied and always working, either as a student or as a teacher.
 
[Next up: THE MANAGING EDITOR, THE NIGHT EDITOR and THE CITY EDITOR.]
 

 

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