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Newspapering as I can only imagine

With the assistance of a clattering contraption rarely still found, a small-town Colorado newspaper, the Saguache Crescent, produces its weekly publication for its handful of readers.

The newspaper has been in business since 1867, but has been using its current method of typesetting — the Linotype — since 1921. That’s when the machine and also its current printing press were purchased by the Coombs family, who still operates the tiny operation. In fact, Dean Coombs, 70, remains there today as the publication’s publisher, editor and, well, the only employee.

Apparently, the Saguache Crescent is the last of its kind in America. In 2014, Coombs told CBS News Sunday Morning he believed he was the only newspaper in the U.S. still using Linotype.

By now, I suspect you may be wondering, what the heck is a Linotype? And why is she writing about this?

The story of the Saguache Crescent’s Linotype came to me from one of our longtime newspaper readers, Robert Lowe of Girard. Mr. Lowe had encountered an article in the April / May edition of Smithsonian magazine about the Colorado newspaper and found it interesting.

In his article, the Smithsonian’s reporter, Nick Yetto, described the Crescent’s Linotype machine as a “mechanical ruckus.”

In a very kind and unsolicited act, Mr. Lowe took the time a few weeks ago to clip the article and mail it to me. To my knowledge, I’ve never met Mr. Lowe, but he was very pleasant when I called to thank him.

Mr. Lowe said he found the article interesting and thought I might also enjoy it.

He was absolutely correct.

The article, in fact, brought a smile to my face.

You see, tucked in a corner, off the beaten-path inside our newspaper building, sits a long-unused, tall, black metal contraption with a 90-character keyboard.

You guessed right! It is a Linotype machine.

Encyclopedia Britannica describes Linotype as a typesetting machine by which characters are cast in type metal as a complete line rather than as individual characters as on earlier “Monotype” typesetting machines. It was patented in 1884 and today has largely been supplanted by photocomposition.

According to Wikipedia, the name of the machine comes from the fact that it produces an entire line of metal type at once, hence a “line o’ type.”

That was a significant improvement over manual typesetting that revolutionized typesetting and newspaper publishing.

Here’s how it works: A Linotype machine operator enters text on the large keyboard, and the machine assembles molds for the letter forms in one line, cast as a single piece of “hot metal.”

In our building, “hot type” already had been put out to pasture, in favor of “cold type” by the time I came to work here in 1995. As I wrote this column, I reached out to a few current and past co-workers with my random question about when that might have occurred. No one could recall, but the closest guess was the late 1960s or 1970s.

Some of my early memories of working here in the 1990s include the paste-up area where news pages were waxed and cut and pasted (literally, with an X-Acto knife) on light boards. I recall editors sprinting from our newsroom across the hallway to paste-up when an error was caught in a story or a bad headline had been sent and deadline was approaching.

It truly was a different time that only old newspaper people probably can appreciate.

So, just imagine even earlier days when, as the Smithsonian article describes, oiled metal clattered hard and loose as gears spun and chains rattled around mechanical reciprocating arms.

It must have been a sight to behold.

Sadly, it’s one I’ll never witness in my career, one I can only imagine.

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