Behind The Scenes

Reflections on the changing ways we receive our news

Note: This is a piece I wrote about the Reformer, and newspapers in general, which will soon be featured in a special centennial section of the newspaper.


The Brattleboro Reformer, as any newspaper over the past hundred
years, has seen more than its fair share of change.

Credit it to advances in technology, changes in society and the way
people want or expect their news, or development of new delivery
methods, one thing is clear: People want the news. They want to know
what’s going on in their communities, in their state, around the
country, around the world.

Over the past 10 decades, each change has brought with it changes
that could be viewed positive and negative. In the beginning there
was expansion to allow room for growth — more people, more news, more
product. Over time, technology allowed newspapers to do more with
less. These days it’s all about diversifying how we present our
product. But one thing has never changed in that timeframe: At the
end of the day, the newspaper, however you choose to view it, is a
collection of the day’s news written and presented by a trained staff
of newspeople (reporters, editors, etc.).

In the beginning ...

Far into humankind’s past, there’s evidence of the printed word. From
scrawlings on cave walls to decorative books printed by ancient
civilizations, it’s clear people wanted a way to preserve and present
thoughts and ideas.

It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that a linotype composing machine
would be invented. Sure, there were other forms of mechanized presses
before this, but with these new linotype machines type could be set
mechanically, meaning you could do more, faster and more efficient.
According to a history of printing from the Harry Ranson Center at
the University of Texas at Austin, the early linotype machines used a
system where “an operator would type on a keyboard similar to a
typewriter, which produced a perforated band of paper. The band was
then decoded by a machine that cast type from hot metal. These
machines cast a whole row of type at a time, so if an operator made
an error it meant the whole line would have to be retyped and

Workers look at a fresh-off-the-press newspaper printed on a "new" offset press, installed at the Reformer facilities in 1969.

George Class was involved with printing the Reformer for 33 years,
beginning in 1964. When interviewed about the paper’s history, he
said people needed to be fast and careful when operating the press.
“I think I still have scars from the hot lead jumping out.”
(Now you know why they still say hot off the presses.)

It’s well-documented that the first several issues of the Reformer,
in its current daily format, first printed on March 3, 1913, were
hindered by a delay in getting a new press delivered to Brattleboro.
Management at the time was forced to use a press from its previous
incarnation as a weekly. Clearly the new press would allow for more
efficient printing.


“Printing as a vocation attracts many young men and women because it
offers real opportunities for steady work, good pay and advancement.”

So states a voiceover to a 1947 informational film about the printing
industry. Over the next several decades following the Reformer’s
first daily edition, modifications and advances to the initial press
were made.

It wasn’t until 1969 that the Reformer switched over to an offset
press, which is most similar to what folks today expect from a
newspaper press.

Still, in the mid-20th century, joining the print industry, at least
on the press side of things, was serious business. Again, from the
1947 film “Printing” (a Your Life Work Series):

“The printing trades acquire most of their new workers through
apprenticeship, or training on the job. Some vocational schools offer
training which can be taken during apprenticeship, or previous to it. Vocational school training alone does not always produce skilled
workers, but it does enable a person to decide whether he is truly
interested and suitable for the work. And the course of training is
arranged to give the student a good background in printing.

“Usually a student starts with hand composition because all of the
fundamental principles of printing are derived from it. Through a
series of prepared lessons, these principles are thoroughly placed in
a student’s mind. The lessons include instructions in spelling, word
division, proofreading, punctuation and printer’s arithmetic.

“After completing the hand composition course, a student is eligible
for work in the pressroom. Here he begins his study on a small,
hand-fed job press. After mastering it, he is advanced to the small,
automatic presses. But there is a great deal to be learned before a
student can assume the responsibility of running the large cylinder

The advent of computers ...

As the process began to become more computerized, newspapers found
more flexibility in how they were forced to present the news. Instead
of cramming 20 or so stories on each page, construction of each page
became more of an art-form.

Paper and wax were used to create ads and lay stories out. Editors
first manually typed, and then later printed off of rudimentary
computers, copy to be “pasted” onto life-size replicas of the
newspaper (typically a sheet of paper, large enough to play host to
two newspaper pages), covered by an extensive grid which helped
composers to line up everything neatly.

(A personal aside: My personal history in newspapers begins toward
the end of this process.)

Once pages were completed, they we photographed by a large camera to
create a negative, which would ultimately be used to create a plate
for the press.

As computers became more user friendly, programs dedicated to layout
were created, ultimately eliminating the need for paste-up.

Today, we are able to build complete pages sitting in front of a
computer screen, tweaking every detail of the words and images.

Of course, with this simplicity also comes death of the romanticized
vision of how a newsroom and production department must have once
been. Indeed, one of the most unusual ways that I’ve witnessed this
fact is field trips to the Reformer offices. While decades ago there
was always a bustle of activity in a variety of departments, these
days a newsroom probably appears much like any other type of business
office in many regards.

Where we’re headed ...

It’s no secret that newspapers have taken a hit over the past decade
or so, with the advent of cable news, a 24-hour newscycle, the
Internet, and so on.

So, where are we headed? Well, I presume much like folks in the
1920’s never would have imagined the newsroom of the 21st century, so
too is it hard to image where newspapers are heading. One thing is
certain: We are adapting to the world around us (some better than

Here at the Reformer, that means we’re no longer strictly a
once-a-day morning newspaper. Sure, we still offer that, but we’re
also breaking and reporting news throughout the day ... and in a
variety of formats.

There’s our website,, which hosts not only our news of
the day, but in depth photo archives, links to our videos, readers
comments and a lot of other news that no longer will fit in our
typical 14-20 page paper on any given day.

We also offer an electronic edition — or e-edition — of the Reformer,
an online facsimile of the regular daily paper which also includes
links to our breaking news.

The Reformer is available on mobile devices, too — smart phones and
tablets that allow you to get you local news anytime, anywhere.
And lastly, we share news and interact with readers using several
social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+ and
Storify. These online tools allow us to present news in new and
exciting formats.

I can’t speak for the editors and publishers that came before me, but
I think it’s safe to safe that we’d all agree that, from that first
issue on Monday evening, March 3, 1913, this was never “our paper,”
it was yours. To paraphrase one of the first editorials: Yes, we are
a business and aim to make money. But more than that we are here to
collect and gather the news of the day and present it to you, in
whatever format you demand.

It is a privilege to not only be part of but to continue a 100-year

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