In 1940, linotype operators were the highest paid union workers in the country.
A generation later, they were gone.
Technology rendered their once irreplaceable task utterly worthless.
Linotype, for those who are too young to remember, was a method of setting type for newspapers. Hot ingots were shaped into letters and placed in lines of text, ready for the printing press. The newspaper was physically ‘made’. Linotype was not easy, and to be a good, fast linotype operator took years of work. It was a craft.
In our world of word processors, where mistakes can be corrected by hitting a delete button, it is hard to comprehend that in the world of linotype if you hit the wrong key, it mean the entire text had to be removed, broken and melted back to lead. Mistakes were costly, and linotype operators were all about speed and accuracy. No wonder the newspapers acceeded to their union’s demand.
In the 1970s, computers were good enough and fast enough to introduce a concept called ‘cold type’, as opposed to the ‘hot type’ of linotype.
Cold type meant that the text could be set electronically.
It was remarkably fast and mistakes could be easily corrected, and typesettings changed in an instant. The text was no longer cast in lead – quite literally.
Cold type cold also be set by pretty much anyone after a few hours of instruction on the new machines. There were even those radicals who claimed that one day, reporters would be able to ‘set’ their own ‘type’ on somethind called a ‘word processors’.
“Impossible”, the union cried.
First, it was one person doing two jobs. Second, how could a journalist focus on their writing (then done on manual typewriters), if they also had to worry about text setting? Never happen.
The great newspaper strike of 1990 and Murdoch’s Wapping face off in England were the end of the power of the unions. In England, the newspaper unions were broken by Thatcher and by the realities of technology. Last month, I was taken on a tour of a major metropolitan newspaper that we are taking into video. They showed us a room in the basement where the old linotype operators spent their days playing cards. The union deal guaranteed them employment for life – but there was no longer anything for them to do. The linotype machines, once the beating heart of the newspaper, were broken up for scrap metal – rendered worthless by a new technology.
Television is now about to undergo the same kind of technological shift, and concurrent labor trauma, that newspapers suffered a generation ago. Those craftsmen, upon whose skill and experience the entire industry once rested, are about to be rendered as superfluous as were those noble linotype men.
Neither saw it coming, and both fought tooth and nail for their survival, but in the end, it is technology and pure economics that call the shots.