Newspaper memories: hot wax and pica poles

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Forty years ago this month, I walked into the Detroit Lakes Tribune and took my place in the newsroom of what was then the largest twice-weekly newspaper in Minnesota. It was my first job after graduating with a journalism degree.

I wasn’t nervous, but I wasn’t overly confident, either. I’d spent two summers during college as a reporter at my small hometown weekly and had some inkling of what newspaper life was like. I’d also covered student government for the Moorhead State University student newspaper, the Advocate.

As I look back at that first job, the Detroit Lakes newsroom was actually a lot like the makeup of the current Inter Lake newsroom. The sports editor had been at the job for decades, much like the Inter Lake’s sports editor Dave Lesnick. And the news editor of the Detroit Lakes paper was a woman in her early 60s, just as I am now. I don’t have gray hair pulled back in a bun or those half-glasses on a chain like my first editor, but I’m now one of the most senior staffers and provide the “institutional” memory of what’s happened in the Flathead for the 28 years I’ve been living here.

The news staff at the Detroit Lakes, or “DL” paper, included a couple of reporters in their early 20s and some more seasoned writers, just like the Inter Lake’s current staff.

After four decades, so much has changed about the mechanics of how a newspaper is produced. In 1979 our news stories came out of a machine on special paper. We manually trimmed each column of text and ran it through a hot-wax machine and then pasted the columns onto a big piece of paper positioned on a light table. If we wanted a border around a story, we manually had to apply border tape using an X-Acto knife to cut the corners. We measured things with pica poles (a pica is a typographic measurement), and had proportion wheels to size photographs created in actual darkrooms.

I always liked “layout” days; the mindless cutting and pasting was a nice change from poring over city council or school board meeting notes.

When I regale our current reporters with some of this history, they’re amazed at this prehistoric way of doing things, and look at me as if I’m some sort of cavewoman. I further blow their young minds by telling them at the small weekly where I worked those two summers, they were just phasing out linotype, the hot metal typesetting system that was used by newspapers from the late 1800s to the 1970s.

And it’s a little-known fact we had “laptops” in the early 1980s — I regularly plopped a manual typewriter on my lap and wrote stories on deadline in the car when we had to travel from Sidney to Miles City once a week to produce our weekly paper and have it printed.

While computers have made newspaper production much easier these days and everything’s done online, I imagine there will come a time when the newsprint product will no longer exist. I expect to be long retired by the time that happens.

What won’t change, though, is the reason journalism and newspapers exist. At least I hope not. I hope we’ll always have reporters willing to dig for the truth and go the distance in keeping the public informed about what’s happening in our communities.

News Editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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