The young man pictured here comes to us courtesy of the Mary Degnan Archives. (Mary was inspired to re-examine a box of old photos after seeing her work on this particular subject matter here at Tonsil a month ago.) This picture was taken in the spring of 1987, when I was 18 and a freshman at Loyola University in New Orleans.
Don’t be afraid of the dilated stare and the sharp knife — it’s just another Wednesday production night at the offices of the Maroon. I was good with an X-acto.
I miss layout. It was probably the only crafty, tactile skill I ever mastered — starting in the journalism room in high school. I miss the waxer, the long strips of freshly developed type set in column inches, the bordertape, the pica poles, the photo reduction-ratio wheels, mitering my corners, the Zip-o-Tone Zip-a-Tone [thanks, Nancy], the 20-percent gray screen half-tones, the light-tables; writing headlines from count orders (“they need a 3-36-1 in 19-pica column width, and don’t forget that flitj only counts for half a character”). I miss the monstrous and cantankerous photostat machine. I miss light blue Copy-Not pens. I miss being able to fix a typo with a knife instead of a reset.
I miss the satisfaction of moving the page flats over to the “finished” side of the boards, where we would burnish them silly and would then hold them up to the light and put masking tape behind the stray X-acto nicks. I miss piling into Tim Watson’s car to drive the flats down to Dixie-Web press off Tchoupitoulas Street at 3 a.m. (Or 4 a.m. Five a.m., on really bad weeks.) I even miss the heartbreak of seeing the paper 24 hours later and noticing all the bad nicks and crooked lines.
All of those skills are now completely obsolete.
I think I derived the same joy from laying out a newspaper that quilters derive from quilting bees. It required concentration, measurement, technique, artistry — but it never distracted you from conversations and gossip and laughs with your collaborators. No matter what sort of worries I had in life (it seems unthinkable to me that I had any worries in 1987, but of course I did), there was nothing more gratifying than a long, hard night of layout, with WTUL on the radio (or a mix tape). The paper came out Friday mornings. We’d close (or try to close) the features and op-ed pages on Tuesday nights, and then the news and editorial pages on Wednesdays — as late as it took, but our printer deadline was technically midnight. We’d usually get the flats there by 3 a.m.
(These pictures, from somebody else’s newsroom backshop, sort of dial the time machine a little too far in reverse, but you’ll get the idea.)
Around the same time Mary took that knife-in-mouth picture of me, we started converting from Compugraphic typesetting machines to the newfangled Apple Macintosh Plus computers (with 80 MB hard drives!). Although Loyola’s Apple team insisted we’d be able to entirely paginate the paper, no sweat, it was something of a disaster for many semesters. We had to cobble together a system on a flimsy “Apple-Talk” network, by which we “typeset” our stories into columns using a “laser” printer. As production manager that semester, I started tentatively experimenting with building boxes, column sigs, and folios on the screen, using Aldus PageMaker or MacDraw.
Laying out a page (or a poster or a book jacket or a brochure) on the screen also has its pleasures — as millions of present-day graphic designers in all forms of media will attest. But it’s hard to match the feeling of laying something out by hand. I guess this is really just more nostalgia for the idea of slowness, craft, the physicality of media.
I wish I could start a Layout Club, for people of a certain age who used to love doing this. We could be like those people who rebuild old video game consoles and whatever else. We would banish all forms of desktop publishing technology prior to 1985. We could hunt down and restore an actual typesetting terminal and developer. We could cobble together some waxers, X-acto knives, other supplies; find or build light-tables and boards. We could meet in someone’s garage. We could put music on and just run out type and lay out a newspaper that would never even have to get to printed. We would miter corners and do color-separation flips. Mostly we would just trade stories and laugh and go home and discover stray strands of “Harvard-rule” border tape in our hair.
Does that sound like a fun time or what? I’ll bet hipsters would love it, just for the retro feel.