LINOTYPE: WordPress v Hot metal. A (sort of) case study

Pic credit:
Linotype machines
 Originally uploaded by edinburghcityofprint


As an evocative recollection of a lost world, the opening lines of Marcel Pagnol’s memoir is hard to beat.

“I was born in the Aubagne in the last days of the goat herders,” he wrote of rural France in the 1890s.

“I was old as my mother and two years older than my brother. That always remained the same.” It is a beautiful book. You can feel the sunshine and the sense of a landscape changing and disappearing from view.

As someone who started in newspapers I’m getting that sense of seeing the old world disappearing.

Newspaper circulation in Britain has fallen by 19.1 per cent since 2001, according to website paidcontent:UK.

Truth is, I feel as if I am seeing the world disappear quicker than most. Why? I started on a hot metal newspaper.

“Of course,” I sheepishly tell people. “I began my career carrying pages of type from a linotype machine to a flatbed press.”

Fopr the record, it is worth stressing that I’m 37. Not 97.


In computer terms that’s pre-Bletchley Park. In fact, that’s several generations pre-Enigma. It represents 1880s technology and I have war stories my grandfather would have had.

For 12 months in 1993, I worked on The Uttoxeter Advertiser, a small weekly in rural Staffordshire which claimed a circulation of 5,000 but was actually selling far fewer copies than that.

It was written and printed in a two storey brick workshop in a courtyard off the Market Square.

Yellowing paper covered the skylight. A century of grime and proofs had built up. Its nickname in the town was ‘The Stunner’.

Why? Because people from the Moorlands town have a very dry sense of humour. It stunned no-one.

As a paper it made no sense either. Deadline was Friday. It then sat about for two days. The front page was printed on Monday and it was folded by hand. Never mind the Internet. It was beaten hands down by word of mouth on the High Street.


Uttoxeter was a strange place. Film maker Shane Meadows grew up there. His small town tales of revenge and violence are all drawn from his early life there.

There was a vicar who owned two pubs and would serve behind the bar wearing his dog collar.

He ran a rehearsal room for bands. Bartley Gorman, the self-proclaimed King of the Gypsies, was a resident.

He took part in bare knuckle prize fights and would stage pony and trap races down the A50 bringing traffic to a halt. Police would just shrug at visitors stuck in the jams. “That’s Bartley for you,” they would say.

My job on the Advertiser was to carry pages of lead type known as ‘formes’. They weighed eight stone (50kg) each.

They needed cleaning, once used, before being melted back down. That was my job too – using a brush with only seven bristles. I also took pictures. And I wrote stories.

It was a noisy job. And dirty. The clank of the linotype machines against a backdrop of whirring Press. You would have to shout to get yourself heard. Each picture needed developing. In black and white. By hand. Then burning to create a printable plate.


Then it needed washing. Then mounting onto blocks of wood raised to the level of the surrounding type.

That took two hours 15 minutes tops. It can take Twitpic 10 seconds and a mobile phone less than a minute.

The reporters had one typewriter between them. Then one day, it broke so they had to write out stories in longhand and pass them to Len, the typesetter. Len was a veteran. You had to hope Len was in a good mood or he would refuse to convert your story into printable slugs of type, one for each line.

It was a fascinating place and I developed a love of newspapers, telling a story and journalism there.

Despite everything. Of course, this crazy backwards world couldn’t last. You knew it as you lived it.

The ‘Stunner’ was put up for sale and this hand to mouth, Dickensian existence came to a halt.

The Burton Mail bought the newspaper and made all but two of the staff redundant.

The machines were switched off and the ink stiffened overalls hung up for the last time.

I left knowing there was a better way of doing things.

So why am I telling you this on a social media blog?

Because the past has gone. It wasn’t romantic and I don’t miss it.

There will still be newspapers. Just in a very different landscape.

I’m telling you this because I want you to know that WordPress can create and distribute more in 20 minutes than it took a team of 12 to do in a week.

Digital cleans up and puts a Press into our desktops and mobile phones.

So go out and use it.

And please – don’t complain next time you see a Fail Whale….

Join the Conversation


  1. Very evocative, Dan.

    I worked for West Midlands Press in the very early 80s and they were a bit more sophisticated than that, using bromide typeset text and photos laid out together on a blue lined card using a scalpel and hot wax.

    Once all the pages were laid out the whole lot was photographed onto aluminium printing plates for the presses, which were the size of a house.

    I can still feel the humming of the presses and smell the ink and the wax.

    I was involved in doing the layout design for a number of papers, including the Walsall Observer, Dudley Herald, West Bromwich Midland Chronicle and Cannock Advertiser. I also did some photography for them.

    The arrival of the Walsall Advertiser – the town’s first freesheet – ruined all that, as they undercut the advertising rates of the Observer so much the paper eventually had to go free and that started the rot. Not long after, I was made redundant when several papers went to the wall.

    These many years later, it is clear that in hard times the freesheet mode of publishing is unsustainable, and the starkest evidence of that is the demise of the (much diminished) Walsall Observer earlier this year. We can only hope that our other two ‘locals’ (neither of which are published in Walsall) can hang on…

    These are sad times for local papers, and for those who remember the grand old days of the Walsall Observer in particular. WordPress may be quicker, but it just isn’t in the same league.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Edditer. Good to see I’m not a solo traveller as a former newspaper production person turned blogger.

    Interesting to see that the Manchester Evening News has abandoned selling papers in central Manchester. They are all given away free. It’ll be interesting to see how all this pans out.

    I remember hearing a forecast several years ago that papers will abandon distribution and allow people to download and print their own copies. It seemed wildly far fetched at the time. It doesn’t seem so these days.

    The Walsall Observer shows how far things can fall. For those who don’t know the town one of the largest buildings in the centre of town still bears the newspaper’s masthead. It stopped being a newspaper office some years ago and remains only as memories and as a landmark.

    I love newspapers and will habitually buy them wherever I go across Britain to get a taste of the area.

    Not the same league as WordPress? No. Just a different one.

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