Jan. 1, 1889: The life of a night editor

  • Blog Post by: Ben Welter
  • December 19, 2012 - 10:26 AM
More than a century ago, “all ‘copy’ of every description” passed through the hands of the Minneapolis Tribune’s night editor. It was a critical job in the production of the morning newspaper. But the workload was heavy, the pressure relentless, the technology primitive and the hours abominable. Here’s our third installment of the Tribune’s two-page spread on “TO MAKE A PAPER.”


The Problem of Seven Columns of Matter and Five Columns of Hole.
After the managing editor has compared the morning TRIBUNE with its contemporaries, has had a consultation with the business and editorial departments, and has mapped out in detail the size and character of the paper to be issued on the following morning, he is supposed to go home, and the detail of his plans is executed by the night editor, who is at his desk by 7 o’clock p.m. and is on duty until the papers are in the hands of the carriers. All “copy" of every description passes through the hands of the night editor for final supervision. After receiving his orders from the managing editor the night editor must be ready to take up the different threads of the work. Often the proprietors and editors are home or out of town when matters that may favorably or injuriously affect the policy or pocketbook of the paper must be instantly decided. The managing editor having ascertained the amount of advertising and determined the size of the paper, the first thing that the night editor does when he comes on duty is to assign reading space to the departments. If it is to be a seven-column eight-page TRIBUNE, and there are 24 columns of advertising, after ascertaining the needs of the departments and the allotment of space would be made something like this:
Telegraph, 10 columns.
Sporting, 1½ columns.
St. Paul, 3 columns.
Editorial, 4 columns.
Markets, 4 columns.
Railroads, 1½ columns.
Political, 2 columns.
City news, 6 columns.
Advertising, 24 columns.

This schedule would, of course, vary from day to day and must be enlarged when the 20-page SUNDAY TRIBUNE is issued.
Having assigned the space, the night editor is held responsible for seeing that no department exceeds the space allotted and is made responsible for the issuance of the paper in time for the earliest mail trains and carriers. During the night the night editor must also answer all queries addressed to the managing editor and must often take the responsibility of ordering or declining news of importance. It often happens that when 10 columns have been allotted to telegraph, that something unexpected occurs of so much importance that it is necessary to publish 15 columns of telegraph. The night editor must then revise his schedule and must always keep the printers supplied with copy and at the same time must see that no more copy is sent than will fill the space.
When the last piece of copy has been put into type, about 2:55 a.m., it is the duty of the night editor to then go to the composing room and superintend the “make-up,” which is under the direction of the foreman. The most important piece of news must be selected, and given the most important position in the paper. The night editor must instantly dictate on which page and on what part of the page each important department or item must be placed. Often it is necessary to rewrite a head, or cut out a paragraph from an article after it is in type and this must be done quickly and with judgment while reading from the type. Again, after the type is all in place, and the pages are made up with due regard to symmetry and mechanical effect, important news is suddenly received. This necessitates quick work, and a rapid tearing up and re-arrangement of the pages.
During the night the TRIBUNE night editor receives on an average 100 messages over the TRIBUNE special wires offering news for publication. This news must be accepted or declined according to its importance to the TRIBUNE constituency, as viewed by the judgment of the editor. The news bulletins as received read like this:
1.     Washington – Miss Francis Willard asks Mrs. Cleveland to continue her crusade against the bustle – 200.
2.     Boston – Suicide and double murder – 150.
3.     New York – Mayor Hewitt writes a letter to Gov. Hill criticizing Cleveland – 500.
The figures denote the number of words that the correspondent desires to send. After weight the bulletins in the seat of judgment, the answer is sent. “Yes, No. 1,” or “Send 250 words, No. 3.”
After the city editor and the heads of other departments have gone home, it is sometimes necessary to prepare news or make editorial comment on that received late, and this work is done by the night editor.
When it is finally decided which articles go into the paper and which are to be left out, and the last page has gone from the stereotyping room to the press room, the night editor fills out the blank spaces in his printed report to the managing editor. The report comprises the columns of different classes of matter, the hour that typesetting commenced, the hour that the last piece of copy was received from the several departments, the amount of type set during the night, the time that the last page was sent to the stereotyping room the number of editions printed, the amounted of advertising or reading matter left out, etc.
When this is done, at 4 o’clock a.m. or later, the night editor is ready to go home.

© 2018 Star Tribune