I was dreading seeing the newspaper film “The Post” which depicts the historic Vietnam-era battle over the secret and highly classified Pentagon Papers. It features famous journalists from the Washington Post and the New York Times. I figured the film would be exactly like the history I remember and there would be scene after scene of ‘serious’ journalists acting serious about those serious papers.
Well, there was all of that but, at the end of the film, I was tickled and it wasn’t because of the acting of Meryl Streep (truly amazing yet again), Tom Hanks (how anyone can be so likable is beyond me) or the direction of Stephen Spielberg (does this guy know how to milk a scene or what?)
What made the film truly enjoyable for me was the way Spielberg and company captured the honest to God way print newspapers used to be produced.
I started in the newspaper business at The Daily News in 1975 and my first day there, one of my bosses told me I’d be witnessing the end of the hot type era and the introduction of computers. He was 100% correct and I thank my lucky stars I got in under the wire in time to at least see the dying days of hot type era.
The hot type production of newspapers was a Dickensian process that had not changed in nearly 100 years by the time I showed up. (For the whole story, you’ll have to read my memoir.)
In 1975, the composing room floor (where the newspaper pages were physically put together) was home to huge vats of molten lead. That lead was used to feed ancient black Linotype machines (I later saw one in a museum). The Linotype machines were operated by frail-looking men wearing glasses who were taking the typewritten pages of copy produced by reporters and making it into pieces of lead type.
The lead type spit out by those Linotype machines were printed backwards! That’s the way it had to be done because when those backward pages of lead were locked and loaded onto the presses, everything came out correctly.
I watched many times as a “printer” would assemble those backward pieces of metal into a page of the newspaper. That was truly a skill. Then the page was “locked” in place with a border that held thousands of tiny pieces of lead together and the call went out: “One boy with a truck.” A “boy” would run over with a “truck”—essentially a table on wheels—and the printer would slide the page onto the truck.
God help us all if a page fell, as one occasionally did. The editor would rage at everyone in sight and the deadline would be blown. And that’s another thing I like about the film—it depicted in a true sense how rude newspaper people could be on deadline and no one apologized or filed a complaint with HR. It was the stress of deadline and, if you didn’t like it, you could move on. Most just headed downstairs to the bar.
Assuming things went well, the boy with the truck would take it to the pressmen and the lead page would undergo another process that would create a flexible page that could then be loaded onto curved presses which would print out the newspaper, thousands at a time.
Somehow, all the pages were put together in the proper order and made into a newspaper which was tied in bundles and loaded onto actual trucks for delivery. It was an amazing physical process that happened several times a night!
When the presses started running, you could feel it in your ass as you sat in the newsroom. That’s why in the film, there’s a shot of the actor who plays Post reporter Ben Bagdikian smiling happily as he feels the rumble of the presses. His story–his byline–is being mass produced and soon will fly out into the streets. It’s the greatest feeling in the world!
“The Post” gets all of this right and it’s a marvel even if you aren’t fully aware of what you are seeing. What you do sense is the pride each of the trades had in the paper and how the drivers were as eager as the reporters to get the latest edition onto their trucks and into the hands of the readers.
You had to be there and I’m glad I was. It was an era, now thankfully reproduced in the film “The Post,” a film everyone should go see.