Long gone newspaper technology

Michael Raffety

Dec. 4, 2009

Before then editor Ursula Smith hired me in 1978 I worked for a small newspaper in Amador County that no longer exists. Published in Ione, the Amador Progress-News has long since been merged and subsumed by the Ledger-Dispatch.

When I first started working there I still lived in Davis with roommates who worked with me on the Woodland Daily Democrat. Most of them were in the Davis bureau. I commuted from Davis to Ione in my ’68 Dodge Dart, except when it was really socked in with fog. Then I slept on the publisher’s couch. I eventually got an apartment over a garage near a creek in Jackson.

When I first met the news editor, Doug Ernst, he had just blown in through the door like the fall wind. He was wearing a trench coat and I looked to see if he was wearing a fedora with a press card stuck in the hat band. No fedora. “We’ve got the county legals,” he bragged as he worked to sell me on what a great paper the Ione-Progress News was. It was a point of pride. In that county with a population of around 20,000 there were three papers. The Ione paper, the Dispatch and the Amador Ledger.

The Dispatch was the newer paper, started by a person who I later learned had been an editor for a newspaper my late father-in-law published here for about two years in the mid-1970s.

The Ledger was actually owned by the publisher of the Ione paper, but its publisher emeritus, Babe Garbarini still produced a weekly editorial by typing it directly into his Linotype machine, which means he could read the backwards mirror image of the type. Babe had been with the Ledger so long he reported on the 1922 Argonaut Mine Disaster.

The Progress-News dated to sometime in the 1940s and was originally operated out of a garage. Sometimes I felt like our building was akin to a garage. The darkroom especially got cold in the winter.

They hired me because they wanted a photographer. I convinced them I could write also. My first story was a school board meeting in Sutter Creek. I had to go back the next day and interview the superintendent to help interpret the meeting. When I finished the story it was 40 column inches long and the publisher said it was the most interesting school board story he had read. He didn’t say that in front of his wife who covered the Ione school board.

My beats were the Amador Unified School District, the Local Transportation Commission, the Sutter Creek City Council, the Amador City Council and the Drytown County Water District. Amador City is the smallest city in the state. They looked at me with suspicion when I showed up to report on their little city council club. There were three of us and we covered the world of Amador County. Drytown was trying to keep a wine grape grower from getting water and it was there I learned all the details of the Brown Act. I learned note taking by doing a man-on-the-street column. You had to write fast to get their answers down and then snap their photo.

In addition to all this I rolled film for the staff and did all the darkroom work, developing film and printing pictures. I also made all the PMTs, which stands for photo mechanical transfers. That meant making copies of ads and making halftones of photos. The PMT developing solution didn’t work too well when it was cold, so I had a space heater. The space heater, of course added unwanted exposure to my prints and PMTs. It was a constant battle between weak development due to low temperatures and better development and a general fogginess to the printed results.

The publisher did a shotgun layout of the whole paper. In other words he worked without a plan. He just hot waxed the copy columns and photos and slapped stuff on the pages until it was all filled up and more or less fit. Here at the Mountain Democrat everything is designed ahead of time and the pages are produced in accordance with a plan.

Sometimes one can overplan. That’s what one of my college editors did. At San Francisco State University we produced a 24-page tabloid of all features by the photographers and reporters of the journalism department. Then it was called the Phoenix because the administration during the S.I. Hayakawa era had shut down the Gator newspaper. That was before my time. The only riot at the college was the Socialist Workers Party members scuffling with police. I missed out on photographing that because it happened during a big test in my Greek class not far from where the so-called riot was happening.

I actually had two college editors, because we had two college papers. The first one I worked for and became photo editor of was Zenger’s and it was sponsored by the Student Association. We ran circles around the Phoenix. Better headlines, better photography, better stories. Then I signed on as photo editor for the Phoenix. When we got to do the special edition I really got to do some innovative designs. The one problem was the editor wanted to see what each set of two-page spreads looked like together.

Pages are married together, especially tabloid size pages. That means that pages 2 and 23 are one sheet of paper. Same with 3 and 22, 4 and 21 and so one. The cover and the back page, of course are one sheet of paper as well as the center spread. So a story and photo spread that covers pages 2 and 3 is actually split and its two elements are lying on two different layout tables. This was an unsatisfactory arrangement for the editor, so she cut the married pages up and placed each two-page spread side by side so she could see the whole thing. I guess this might be called divorcing the pages.

That was OK, but college papers run on beer. We would start the evening out with a big stack of beer flats. There were as many as 60 people, but usually more like 20-30, who worked on the department paper. By midnight or 2 a.m. when the paper was boxed up and delivered to the printer, the beer was gone and so was the attention to details. In this case the detail forgotten was to remarry the pages.

So when the printer got these unmarried pages he just guessed at how they were really supposed to go together. Never rely on the night shift of a print shop to make artistic decisions for you. When the paper came back some of the features worked together, but most were a discombobulated hodgepodge. I’ll bet she never again disconnected married pages. One learns to visualize the whole package even though elements may be separated. Predesigning makes that possible.

At the Amador paper there were three of us and we all had titles. I was news and features editor. The news editor who hired me, Doug Ernst, went on to the Napa Register, where he wrote a great expose that won a big California Newspapers Publishers Investigative Journalism award and should have been given a Pulitzer. He became editor of the Register and is now publisher of one of that group’s weeklies, the St. Helena Star.

The sports editor, David Darlington, a C student from Yale, quit to return to carpentry in Berkeley and writing nonfiction books. He modeled his approach on our hero John McPhee, a writer for the New Yorker who turned his lengthy articles into books. My favorite McPhee book is Coming Into the Country, a story about Alaska. David’s first book, published in 1987, was about California’s Corrizo Plain and was called In Condor Country. So far he has had seven books published, the latest listed on Amazon.com being Zin: The History and Mystery of Zinfandel.


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