A devil of a time for the printed word

It should come as news to no one that newspapers are in a battle royal with the Grim Reaper. And that the sinewy fellow seems to have the Fourth Estate in an ever-tightening death grip.

Still, it was discombobulating to learn this week that our brethren at The Oregonian newspaper, the largest and oldest still-publishing paper in the state, will be cutting its home delivery to four days a week, reducing the paper's staff and focusing on its digital delivery.

It will still be printed daily and distributed to metro areas, at least for now. There is no doubt the move was inevitable, given our swiftly changing world.

However, the fact the Big O is beginning to roll down that slope is an unsettling reminder of my chosen profession's continuing evolution.

True, it is simply morphing into something else that will use the printed word to convey news — the latest happenings from the north, east, west and south. There will still be printed news, albeit totally digitalized.

But I like to think newspapers will hang around a bit longer. I will miss them when they are gone, especially the hilarious, interesting and just plain quirky folks it takes to put one together.

Indeed, just the past 21 years at the MT have produced some hilarious incidents that, well, I guess we can't go there just yet. Something about the statute of limitations, not to mention getting the bum's rush to the door.

We can take a sidebar back to the University of Oregon where one of my favorite journalism classes was the history of newspapers. It took us back nearly three centuries to the New England Courant, started by former printer's devil James Franklin in 1721. The Courant was considered the first independent paper back in America's colonial days.

You may have heard of his younger brother, Ben, also a former printer's devil, inventor, signer of the Declaration of Independence, post master general and other odds and ends. Young Ben penned popular letters to the paper under the pseudonym of Mrs. Silence Dogood, a local widower.

Not long after the Franklins made their mark in newspaperdom, a fellow from Scotland named James Gordon arrived in Boston in the early 1800s and began writing for local newspapers. That was my great-great grandfather, the one who put the ink into my maternal gene pool.

It skipped a couple of generations but made a splash during my sophomore year at Illinois Valley High School in Cave Junction in 1966. A rare after-school job in the form of a printer's devil popped up at the weekly Illinois Valley News.

Never mind I knew nothing about printing neither devils nor angels. I dashed down to the paper.

That's when I met the late Bob Grant, the wise-cracking publisher/editor who always spoke his mind. He was a lovable curmudgeon, and one of my all-time favorite characters.

I had gone down to his office to ask about the job during lunch break. When he hadn't decided whether to hire me and time was running short, I pressed the issue.

Turning to his wife, Jan, Bob said, "Persistent little SOB, isn't he?"

Then, ignoring my total lack of experience and somewhat rowdy reputation, he hired me.

Whereupon I stepped inside the hot-lead world of newspapers filled with the aroma of wet ink and boiling lead. I loved the rhythmic click-clack of the Linotype machine.

As a printer's devil, my job included everything from sweeping the floor to melting recycled lead to make pigs. These were lead logs used to feed the melting pot at the side of the old Linotype machine.

But the biggest challenge was operating the ancient flat-bed press that looked like a beached leviathan. You did this each Tuesday night by feeding one sheet of paper at a time onto a roller while the heavy bed of the press slammed back and forth underneath.

I got proficient at feeding the insatiable press but periodically messed up, causing the press to wad up a paper in disgust. That's when a piercing glare would burn across the print shop like a laser. Better not to screw up.

Late one Tuesday night as I was feeding sheets into the ravenous machine grumbling under me, I leaned a little too far forward.

The teeth in the gears turning the roller grabbed the edges of my leather apron, yanking me toward what would have been my final deadline.

As I flew forward, I grabbed the controlling lever with my right hand, stopping the machine.

That's when I looked up into the stern stare of Mr. Grant.

"You almost made the front page," he quipped after it was clear there was no injury. "But it would have been better than that damned PTA story," he added.

I figure that as long as there are Bob Grants in this world, the people who put forth the news of the day — whether on paper or the Internet — have a rock-solid future.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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