Monday, April 15, 2013


By Arthur H. Gunther III

Every profession has its special character, quirks, shortcuts, efficiencies. In my old newspaper gig, 42 years long, one of these special markings was half sheets, scrap paper taken from left-over newsprint, cut down to about 4x5 inches, give or take.

We would use longer sheets, about 8x10, for typing stories, carbon paper stuck twice between other sheets so that there was first the original, which was sent to typesetting after desk editing; the second, which was used by the page layout person for story placement, length and headline; and the third for the reporter’s files. 

Computers eventually made that wonderful, well-acquired practice of setting three newsprint sheets and two carbons in a non-electric Underwood or Royal. The clack-clack of the machine, usually in a symphony of others, made for a newsroom’s purring as another edition was being readied. When a writer finished his.he piece, he ripped it out of the typewriter with a flourish, the machine’s platen spinning at a sound level that, if it could be set to Morse code would read -- 30 -- the usual newspaper end to a story.

The half sheets made for a different animal. The province of page layout and copy editors, they would be used to write headlines, with type style, size and how many lines indicated. These “hed orders” would be determined mostly by page layout and sometimes modified by copy editors, including the “slotman” or copy chief, who sat in the slot of a horseshoe-shaped desk and threw out head orders to lowly copy editors.

Headline size helps determine story importance, as does the placement of the piece. The right side of a standard or normal-sized broadsheet newspaper carries the most significant story, with the biggest headline. Tabloid front pages are often all headline, and they really “shout,” as they are supposed to do in the “working-class newspaper.

A half sheet might contain seemingly cryptic letters and numbers, like this: 1/42-3 R. That would be Roman-style type in the paper’s usual style, such as Caslon, set on one column at 42 point (72 points to an inch), three lines or “decks”. A 3/60-2 ital head order would be a three-column, 60 point italic, 2-deck head. If special type style were needed, such as for a feature page story, it would be so indicated, such as 5/48-1 bodoni, which is a five-column, 48 point Bodoni type headline on one deck, Roman style, not italic, unless indicated.

Usually, copy chiefs would write the head order on the top right side of an edited story, with a right-angle mark tucking it into the corner. The copy editor would then take the half sheet, also write the hed order with right-angle on top right of his sheet, come up with a head, place the half sheet on the copy and hand it all back to the copy chief. If the chief approved it, he marked page placement on the left bottom side of the half sheet, rolled it up with the copy and put it in a pneumatic tube to be shot to composing.

Today, newspapers do all their story editing, placement and hed writing via computer, which can be observed by other editor at the same time.

But in my more romantic days, there was an intimacy between you and the half sheet. Coming up with a good headline was not easy. Sometimes inspiration set in quickly; most times you needed to ponder. You could get up and walk about the office, but the copy chief didn’t like that. You could drag on a cigarette like the rest of the newsroom. Or you could stare at the half sheet and the story, somehow finding your answer, your headline, in that.

It was a special intimacy in the old newspaper days.


The writer is a retired newspaperman.

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