When Professions Die


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.


13 responses to “When Professions Die

  1. You leap to compare things to television when the truth is what you write is about the complete death of newspapers.

    Television is and will do just fine thanks. As always changing with the technology. Just like we’ve done since day one.

    The newspaper people are the ones, as your story points out, who have never been able to adjust to technology until it’s too late. That is what will happen again.

  2. I agree that television will do alright despite the drops in viewership, primarily because there is no other medium by which advertisers can get a broad message out to people in one big blast. The internet is very segmented in that the majority of people go online to view specific sites.

  3. I think TV as we know it is on the endangered list. I now watch most of my ‘tv’ programming on-line (through BBC iplayer amongst other services). I am a 40 year old technophobe, so who knows what today’s 20-somethings will be watching in 20 years time. I certainly don’t think they’ll be staring at a box in the corner of the room, perhaps staring at something on their lap or a mid-air image! But just like the days when people gathered around the ‘wireless’ radio, TV as we know it is on borrowed time…….

  4. As many of us have pointed out in the past, and we agree, the delivery system for our product is always changing. What doesn’t change are the skills and abilities needed to produce that product no matter what tool you put in our hands.

    Whether someone watches a program or story on their computer or on their tv, I’m still employed.

  5. $, just out of innocent curiosity, do you feel that newcomers to your field (with the same abilities/training you have/had when you started) would be offered the same compensation today (and maintain a relatively similar compensation trajectory over the years)?

  6. I started an intern of sorts. I got paid peanuts but I was getting first class training, six weeks in every department for two years and all the overtime I could stand… actually in the first year I made more in overtime than my base salary… which was still not a lot but after two years of training my next step was to a real job with a real salary.
    Now guys with a lot less training than me start out with a lot higher pay. They don’t get the salary jump I did after two years and they get no further training other than what they can pick up from those around them… I’m always open to training them if they ask… so is it better now? If you are self-motivated and chase training I’d say yes but if you just drift there is no career. Also that first few weeks of being dropped in the deep end can finish you in this industry before you started.

  7. $ misses the point. In 20 years time, one individual will be able to do the job of 20 journos, 6 camearmen, four tape editors and 550 fat tv executives. TV as we know it is dieing.

  8. The short answer to your question is yes.

    I started out very small in both paycheck and market size. As I got better so did everything else.

    The problem today is too many think they need work only a year or two to achieve long term success.

    That’s not the way it’s ever been for any job.

    Today’s younger people expect faster results and quickly get disillusioned when everything doesn’t work out perfectly, quickly, for them.

    That is the only barrier I see for many. And it’s a barrier which can easily be overcome with a realistic approach to life and work.

    Spending a couple of grand on a short course or buying a book is not going to teach anyone much. That’s a basic inroduction. The rest comes from hard knock experience.

    Only the strong survive, as is the case again, in any job.

  9. It’s an interesting point. What gets me is that VJ working ways have been with us have been with us for more than a decade now, and I am still waiting to witness the much heralded VJ ‘revolution’.

    Most of the people I know in the broadcast media (and I reckon I am fairly well connected) are employed as ‘VJ trainers’ rather than as VJs who directly generate output.

    The BBC in the English Regions has largely abandoned its VJ experiment. VJs seem to sit in the corner of the newsroom, rather like special needs children in a classroom. BBC National News still prefers ‘Cameramen’ – despite the financial attractions of cheap and cheerful VJ’s.

    So at some point I suspect the industry will turn around and ask itself why it employs so many VJ trainers when it does not take Videojournalism seriously.

  10. Pete nothing you just said is true.

  11. No Pete, you miss the point.

    I don’t need to do all jobs to make a living.

    Maybe you do.

    I have too many people wanting to work with me to create content for both broadcast and the internet.

    TV is like that. No one person can get it on the air, or on the internet. The only ones wanting to do that are those who can’t get a job anywhere else. Of course they want to see the world as only one way, by one person. It gives them hope. But no paycheck. Unless they are teaching a class at a school for a subject they themselves still can’t make a living at on their own.

    TV is the delivery system. Not the product. The internet is a delivery system too. You don’t seem to understand what is product. Figure that out and you just might find a full time job.

  12. Pete my nothing is true comment was meant to go after your $ misses the point not the later… which is very interesting.

  13. $ – I agree with you that the younger (my) generation is a ‘quick results’ generation and I think it is a major flaw of ours. I feel that if anyone wants to get anywhere in any field they have to pour their hearts out into the job.

    One thing I feel that should be taken into consideration, though, is user friendly technology which speeds up a lot of process. I feel that the principals are the same (work hard and keep learning) but do you feel that the learning curve is much different?

    Playing off of the ‘strong will survive’ statement (which I also agree with), I think that ‘surviving’ in my generation has a lot to do with how fast you can integrate new competencies with established ones. This is where most people get lost chasing the easy way out because technology keeps trying to push for an easier way. Balance, to me, is another component in surviving in any industry today – balancing technology (tools) and knowledge (skills).

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