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DEAR READER: Missing newsroom items stir nostalgia

Tuesday, October 22, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:10 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 22, 2013

COLUMBIA — Things have gone missing from the newsroom. It's not just the usual end-of-semester event when Missourian and The Associated Press stylebooks grow legs and disappear.

No, it's much more — so much more that it qualifies as a cultural shift. It's been happening over quite a few years.

The quest for a pica pole started this roam through newsroom nostalgia. Joy Mayer's 7-year-old son, James, needed a ruler to use on a school project. When Joy asked various students if they had a pica pole, she was met with blank faces and "What's that?"

They had never heard of this newsroom standard. When it was explained as a type of ruler, usually metal, that uses picas and points in addition to inches — measurements used in newspaper design — then the students knew what she was asking for, but they confessed to not having one, nor ever seeing one.

The incident set me thinking about other common newsroom objects that have been replaced by computers, the cloud and servers, as well as fast-paced applications that measure, flow and adjust copy. (I'm sure the generation ahead of me could name many more changes.)

For example, proportion wheels are gone. In the style that I'm most familiar with, a smaller circle was attached to an outer larger circle and by moving the circles to align numbers, you could figure out what size a photo would be if you wanted to enlarge or shrink it. Older ones were made of thin cardboard, but later versions were laminated cardboard or plastic. Click-and-drag in the InDesign program is so much easier and accurate. Farewell proportion wheels. 

A much bigger item missing from newsroom is the "rim" desk, though the term "rim" is still used. This desk was a horseshoe shaped structure. The supervising editor, usually the copy desk chief, sat in the middle opening, called the "slot," and handed out assignments to copy editors, who sat along the outer edge. Thus the name "rim," and copy editors were called "rimmers." There was also a verb derived from the desk, as in, "Who rimmed this story?"

The desktop was crowded with a set of encyclopedia, dictionaries, telephone and crisscross directories, stylebooks and a variety of other reference books. We still have some of those, but the Web and Google searching has replaced the need for most of them.

Glue guns and pots vaporized, too. There's no longer a need to paste one sheet of paper to another to keep pages of  a story intact as it moves through the production process. And paragraphs are reorganized with a simple "cut and paste" action in word processing applications. But, oh, the smell of that epoxy — it was a powerful odor and guaranteed that you wouldn't be dozing off at the desk, no matter how late the hour.

Red wax pencils and later pens with red ink have been replaced by "notes mode." To sharpen one of those pencils, the user pulled a little string that uncoiled the paper and exposed more of the wax stick. It was a dismissive description of a poorly written story if a copy editor said: "My red pen committed suicide on that story."

Rolodexes are gone, mostly. (I've heard rumors of one or two editors harboring one in their offices.) For those who don't remember these, it was a rotating device with lots of business-size cards attached to a central wheel. It was great for keeping track of contact information. I might try to find one again as I remembered recently how handy they are.

There were reams and reams of cheap paper, sometimes trimmed by hand during slow moments on the rim. Surprisingly we still have a paper trimmer, though not long ago, a student did ask me what it was. It's seldom used.

Gone, too, are "spikes," a truly descriptive term for a piece of equipment that had a nail-like shaft rising from a metal or wooden base. They were used to store copy that the desk had finished processing — or, more seriously, to kill a story as in: "I'm spiking this one." It was a first cousin to red-pen suicide. 

No one was ever seriously injured with a spike that I know of, but there were plenty of nicks to hands that weren't accurately aimed and, of course, bruised egos when a story hit the stick. 

Typewriters are definitely gone. There's an antique portable model with its case in my office, but it's strictly decorative now. It sits next to an 8-inch "@" sign — symbolic of my old and new worlds. 

The missing object that I get the most nostalgic about is the AP teletype machine, which spit out black and white photos and yards and yards of inch-wide yellow ticker tape with the day's news. The clatter as it punched holes in the tape and the ringing of alarm bells signaling breaking news still echo in my memory. My first newsroom job in college was wire editor for the campus daily, and it has been a responsibility, in greater and lesser degrees, throughout my career.

And, a long time ago, I knew how to read that coding. Now, the AP news feed moves electronically. Today, knowing HTML coding would be the equivalent to reading the yellow tape of yesteryear.

There are still telephones in the newsroom, and they still ring fairly often, but it's nowhere near the level it used to be. Cellphones abound, though. 

There's a big screen plasma television set here now. At best, back in the day, we had a radio set complete with a static-filled transmission.

And, every once in a while, I really miss an ubiquitous newsroom hallmark — a bottle of booze in a lower desk drawer. Truly, I never had one of these "medicinal pints" myself, but I worked with plenty of editors who did and who shared during emergency situations. 

Like the pica pole, the booze is gone — outlawed even.

But the pica pole still has its uses — it makes a great substitute knife for cutting cake.


For September, 10 participants submitted 13 entries in the Show Me the Errors contest. Tim Tai is the winner of the drawing for September. He will receive a Missourian T-shirt and a copy of "The Professor and The Madman" by Simon Winchester.

To launch the start of year No. 4 of the  Show Me the Errors contest, we're changing the prize. Starting in October, the winner will still receive a Missourian T-shirt, but the new book will be "Yes, I Could Care Less" by Bill Walsh. We wrote about Bill's book in the August column. We hope you'll join in the contest.


Maggie Walter is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and an interactive news editor at ColumbiaMissourian.com.  Here's a tidbit for college professors and students everywhere: A footnote in Winchester's "The Meaning of Everything," a romping read about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary: "There are discovered errors, too; the word syllabus, for example, is a ghost-word, coming from a mistransliteration by Cicero, who wrote the word instead of what he he wanted, "sittybas" (which means label), by mistake. The word "syllabus" should by rights not be in the English language at all."


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