Journalism school teaches students pre-digital newspaper production techniques

Students in the Florida Atlantic University J-school produced a newspaper using (mostly) pre-computer technologies, composing on manual typewriters, pasting up with X-Acto blades and rubber cement, shooting on film and developing in a darkroom:
While archeologists try to recreate what life was like 10,000 years ago, and historians try to recreate what life was like 1,000 years ago, journalists can’t even recreate how they published a newspaper 20 years ago. No one documented the details or saved the old equipment. (I had to buy some of it from creepy old men through Craigslist.)

Journalists may write history’s first draft, but when it comes to covering their own history, they don’t even take notes. I can imagine college students 20 years from now asking their aged adviser…

Your digital cameras didn’t just beam images to the cloud as you shot them? What’s a “memory card”? And you had different programs for writing, design, and photo editing? Does anyone still have “Word,” “InDesign,” and “Photoshop”? It’d be fun publishing an issue that way – maybe we can buy copies from some creepy old men on Craigslist.



  1. My last year in J-school at Auburn was also the last year the department used waxers and big paste-up boards for page composition.  They got Macs the next year.  I even learned how to use a PMT machine.  That said, what is the benefit of teaching journalism students to use techniques that are no longer used in newsrooms?  Is it just about “Oh, how quaint”?

  2. I made a career operating offset presses (getting nasty chemicals and inks ON MY HANDS!) and paste-ups, darkroom, graph boards, rubber cement. . . I don’t miss it too much. 

    Now days I create a project on my giant Mac, pdf it to a printshop on the other side of the country and they mail it to my client across the state. 

    Usually I find a deposit in my pay-pal account afterwards. 

    All of this for clients I have never even spoken to on the phone. 

  3. Excellent. They really should follow this up with a quick introduction to photo-offset printing (at least), and, ideally, letterpress with or without engravings.

    I grew up occasionally wandering through typography shops. I still have a chunk of Ludlow cast type with my name on it that one of the guys made for me. My high school had a press shop with both photo-offset and letterpress; when I got to college I continued to play with letterpress, and I’m sure I could still design, set, lock up, and run a print job on a motorized-but-manual-feed press.

    (Actually, the paper handling technique for feeding a press without getting your fingers crushed was a useful thing to learn; I’ve applied the same skills when bulk-photocopying or collating handouts or doing other things that sheet-feeders and automatic collators couldn’t handle.)

    The point of the exercise, from my point of view: Working with the older tools — which are slower and less forgiving of mistakes — teaches planning and precision, and puts a strong focus on doing the job right rather than lazily doing what the software is biased toward. It’s also a good opportunity to step back and discuss how some of the rules evolved and whether or not they should still be respected. (Most should.)

    1. Yeah, what technogeekagain said. Speeking as someone who has worked 15 years in the newsprint sector, I’ve stopped counting the times when I’ve had to spend hours cleaning up after some noob who thought toying around with the Adobe CS  on dad’s computer was all the training he needed.

      The paradox of Desktop Publishing is that all the applications today are super user friendly, wich often gives the user the false impression that he’s in control, even when he has no real understanding of what is happening on the screen. Lo-res scans, overbleed problems,  bad cropping, unprintable colours and those hilarious “photoshop disasters” are only some of the gaffes that have become routine within the business. So this kind of exercise should be mandatory for anyone who wants to work in print, IMO.

      Kids these days need to grow up. Now get of my lawn.

      1. […] are only some of the gaffes that have become routine within the buissness.

        Apparently proofreading has also gone down the tubes.

        1. Touché.
          With the new comment system, I could go back and correct that in my original comment, but I don’t know if that would be proper netiquette or not.

          1. With the new comment system, I could go back and correct that in my original comment, but I don’t know if that would be proper netiquette or not.

            Correcting typos would be lovely because, frankly, I’m sick of looking at them all day. If you want to make a substantive correction, you can use the strike tag. Disqus accepts much more html than MT did.

          2. Typo correction is my favorite reason for the switch to Discus (see what I did there).

            I don’t correct typos in things I quote, though, because I’m never totally sure it isn’t some arcane snark that my feeble hipness simply does not grok. My fear of being flamed outweighs my compelling need for orderly grammar and spelling.

  4. My wife worked at a newspaper that was still using this as recently as 2005. Then they got bought out, and the press was outsourced to LaGrange, Ga. Now the papers arrive at stores later, and the quality has gone down. As a result, circulation has gone down. What a GREAT money saving idea that was…

  5. This is precisely why I built my house with an axe. The kids of today have no idea how to use anything but powertools. It makes for very sloppy work.

  6. I still have all my darkroom equipment and the reference books with the charts and tables for film processing and printing. Supplies are getting a bit hard to find now, but my hope is that they won’t disappear completely, but instead settle down to an availability similar to supplies for other antique fine art techniques.

    At least the chemistry for black and white can be mixed relatively easily from readily available stock chemicals, but the films and papers harder. I suppose we could go back to the days of wet or dry collodion and coat our own plates :/

  7. I am just stunned that all the comments aren’t about the internet killing print.  That seems to be the paradigm with morons who don’t know any better, or think that they do.  One gets really tired of it after a while, but the average Boing! Boing! commenter has more education and knowledge than other forums, thankfully.

    I attended the Art Institute of Seattle, beginning in 1987.  Apple did have the ImageWriter PostScript driver out by then, I believe, but desktop publishing was not being taught in the schools.  I learned and used the manual techniques for years, including PMTs, negatives, and rubylith.  Now the term “camera ready” means whatever crap file the client’s 12 year old nephew decided to use, which is usually Word or Microsoft Publisher, both of which are unusable.  We don’t even have a PMT camera any more and everything is CTP.

    1. in the last 30years in my printshop – using an IBM selectric, and a one-line typesetting machine which you would run through the waxer and then cut and paste it on the board, and later shoot it and strip it on the masking sheet to make offset plates. I can’t remember the name of that first typesetting machine, but then we got an AM compugraphic typesetting machine (used, for $10,000 along with a forklift and a couple of light tables from a shop that went under) The AM compugraphic machine was a marvel of technology – it had fonts on film disks that would spin and move about on a shaft – though first you had to typeset it. You ran an editing program first 
      it was definitely not wysiwig. – full of html type of formatting code, and then you had to be at the end of the document to save it. (otherwise it would only save up to your cursor). Then you loaded the imaging program on another disk. The editing and imaging programs came on floppy disks that were 8 inches.  The program would run, the font wheel would whir and spin around and of course if you wanted to change fonts you had to open the machine and put on another one (thus exposing a section of the film or paper)  Usually we printed to paper and then cut and pasted some more and then made a neg.  The type was still cleaner than anything on a laser print at the time. Anytime there was a full colour job, we pasted final size photographs together on a sheet along with reg. marks and sent them out for a raw scan to film.. Then we cut up the film – and stripped it up laboriously on clearbase (mylar), made sure all the negs were lined up, then we cut windows on rubylith, using red tape on the corners. If there were any screens or coloured type, these had to be burned separately with special film screens (I think we still have 10% 30% and 50%) as they were fairly expensive (and reusable).  Finally it was all burned to plate – sometimes as much as 5-7 different burns to plate (including colourbars etc).  
      That’s all long gone, but we still output to film – the film is punched so everything is in register. There are some advantages – some jobs we re-run without changes, so if we save the film it is faster and cheaper to redo (and though plates can be saved) it is not always worth the time. 

      And of course so much more of the work is digital. Our konica minolta can print and collate stitch a whole book in one go..
      And yet some people, still want foil, or embossing and diecutting – and the nice thing about the letterpresses is that they will run easily for another 50 years. Except letterpress print has no @ since it was not a standard character in typefaces. 

  8. ahh yes, the good ol’ days: hand-set type, proportion wheels, non-repro blue pencils, etc.

    i don’t miss it, but i’m glad i went through it

  9. Cuts, heads, kickers, call-outs, gutters. Typesetting and paste-up has such a violent vernacular.

  10. I worked in a production shop churning out weekly papers while I was in school in the late 80’s, and I often get nostalgic for the processes – stat cameras, typesetters, and especially the hot wax machine.

    I loved that thing!  Two rollers, one running through the melted wax in the heated tray, just pass your column or photo through and ZIP! hot wax on the backside.  Just make sure not to run it more than once, it made a mess on the second roller that sucked to clean up.

    We had a whole building dedicated to photo processing and plate production.

    I have to agree that having that training and background gives one a higher appreciation for quality and precision in your work – it’s helped me with my screenprinting immensely, which is also a mostly manual process.

  11. I too miss the days of manual paste-up. I quickly transitioned to digital deign, pre-press, etc. when the time came. But the compositional and typesetting skills gained through analog process were invaluable in making the switch to digital efficiently and successfully.

    While I do enjoy many of the advantages of the systems we use now, personally, I miss the joy of actually handling materials. For me, the tactile sensations of waxing, doing paste-up, etc. made my job quite a bit more enjoyable than futzing around with a keyboard. 

    I admit that I still love playing Illustrator and Photoshop as if they were musical instruments. But I frequently sketch my flow-charts and lay-outs before ever touching a keyboard. Occasionally, I’ll create an entire interface with rapidograph pens, collage, and other Ice Age design elements, then scan or photograph the whole and manipulate the elements so they’ll work well on screen. Clients have been very pleased with the results and I have a lot of fun doing it.

    As long as the design meets the objectives it was created to fulfill, the instruments used to achieve the whole are irrelevant. But using certain instruments can make an assignment much more fun.

  12. I’m about to graduate with my BA in journalism. 
    I’m 23 now and it was only 6 years ago that I was slopping down gobs of rubber cement and developing negatives in the DR. The process might have changed, but all the skills are applicable. In fact, I contend the best way to learn photography is through traditional developing.

    I don’t think this is a “lost art”. Of the three publications I’ve worked at, two have their own printing presses in the same building. And, because journalists tend to put off retirement, there is no end to the collection of old fogies who can tell you about the good ol’ days.

  13. I started Journalism in the mid 80s in Junior High. Two years of Editorial (loved it, got away with murder). Actually shot on 35mm, developed in a dark room. Did “Burning with a hole in cardboard to expose more of an image. We had JUST gotton Word Perfect and my task was to figure out “Full Justification”.

    Kept with that through my short High School Career. Ignored it in College and then went to WiReD Magazine in 90-something. Whole new world. I kinda’ missed The Old Days.

  14. Having read the actual paper that they put out (linked at the end of the article), I’d say it looks more like a zine than a newspaper. But that’s just because the students doing the work didn’t have 20 years of experience getting the details right.

    As an exercise in teamwork, it was a great idea to have the students do it the old-fashioned way.

    Just don’t make me lay out a circuit board using red and blue tape and Bishop Graphics transfer patterns!

  15. When I was in journalism school in the ’70s and we had some of them
    there fancy phototypesetters, we were still required to work in the
    Frederic Goudy Typography Lab. We were forced to think about design,
    spacing, and the physical limitations of the previous incarnation of the
    technology that were carried over into the tech we were using then. It
    was a good thing.

    And I’ll definitely echo the comment of EeyoreX — just because it looks
    good on your screen doesn’t mean the work is done. In print, somebody
    has to make sure all that translates into a physical medium, and it’s a
    long way from automatic. It’s not well-understood because so much
    emphasis is on web, web, web, and there are very few people with print
    credentials to teach this anymore. 

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