As someone whose blood was infused with printer’s ink at age 3 when the tips of his fingers were caught in the jaws of a platen press, the trade has long been of interest. The struggles overcome by early newspaper publishers—and the glories they accomplished as a result—are mighty.
Front pages of three early efforts appear above. On the left is the New England Courant, established in 1717 in Boston by James Franklin, to whom his younger brother Benjamin was apprenticed. Next to it is the Morning Alaskan, established in the Gold Rush gateway of Skagway in 1901. On the right is the Nome Nugget edition of Sept. 19, 1902, announcing the execution of Fred Hardy, Alaska’s first person to be legally hung.
This is not intended as a history of Alaskan media, but rather a look at how papers were written and produced. Evangeline Atwood and Lew Williams, Jr. wrote “Bent Pins to Chains,” a comprehensive look at the newspapers of Alaska; it does a good job of identifying many of those publications. The Alaska Newspaper Project is an arm of the Alaska State Library and Department of Education, aided by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and is building a digital library of papers new and old.
To fully appreciate what was involved in the days of yore, we need to first understand the process.
Before 1900 and after, Alaska’s newspapers were printed with words formed by type in letters cast individually from molten lead. Each font face and size was stored in a wooden “case.” Letters were plucked out by hand and placed in a “stick” set to the width of the line. Each had to be fully spaced out to be securely held in the page “form” in order to keep the type firmly in place. Very thin brass pieces sized appropriately were used to accomplish that.
The printing press itself was generally a flatbed cylinder model, the single sheets of paper inserted by hand. A broadsheet paper was usually 17 inches wide and 22 inches high, with a tabloid format half that size. Lead, used to cast type because of its low melting point, is one of the heaviest metals. A form with one broadsheet page, or two tabloid pages, would weigh well over 400 pounds. The cast-iron press had to be sturdy, indeed. Until electric motors were available, the press was run by turning a wheel or pumping a foot pedal.
Imagine, then, what it involved to get a fully-equipped printing plant to remote spots in Alaska in the days when river boats and sleds were the primary means of transportation. Paper also is heavy. Sporadic transportation meant a sizeable quantity had to be kept on hand.
“The Klondike Nugget,” written by Russell Bankson and published in 1935, is a wonderful reference for anyone who wants to learn about the trials and tribulations of publishing a newspaper in the bustling mining camp of Dawson, Yukon Territory. Publisher Eugene Allen left a collection of the newspaper, which now resides within the confines of the University of Washington Library, on Bankson’s desk. The enterprising Allen recounted how he and his crew made the trip over White Pass, set up the newspaper office with little bankroll, and became the miners’ voice throughout the days of golden excitement.
Newspapers were the only means of keeping people informed in those days before radio and television. Telephones weren’t even available until the Rush was well underway.
Those who joined the stampede to the north were hungry for news. The Spanish-American War was looming, for one thing, and people were anxious to hear what was happening on the Outside. Without even a telegraph connection for the first years, the newspapers relied on publications brought by new arrivals and interviewing new arrivals for tidbits.
News was scant after the creeks froze, with fires providing the most often noteworthy events.
Elmer J. “Stroller” White, a Gold Rush newspaperman who became highly admired, gave out his tricks of the trade. When there was little going on about which to write for the upcoming edition, even the smallest tent fire gained full coverage. It made the front page, near the top. He would go into great detail to describe the intensity of the flames. The items lost would be listed, along with the struggle the hapless owner endured to get them over the Pass. Credit would be given to the person or people who turned in the alarm. Each of the brave firefighters who responded would not only be named, but their length of service and past experiences would be published. Comments from as many spectators as could be rounded up would also be included. Embellishment was freely exercised.
When things were hopping, however, only a major fire would warrant coverage. The tent fire might be given only two or three lines somewhere within the edition.
White admitted to manufacturing news—but only as a last resort. A favorite source for news on such occasions was “an old Indian.” He wrote of one occasion when the editor was desperate for something to fill the pages. He and another reporter hit the boardwalk, one headed east and the other west. He happened onto a man who had just met a traveler from western Alaska. The man told of the discovery of an ancient boat hull the appeared from the eroding shore in the Koyukok region. He was on his way Outside to report it to experts who he was sure would confirm that it was the remnants of Noah’s Ark.
It turned out his associate had contacted another man who pointed out worms moving through the ice alongside the creek.
Stroller lamented that his story rated the banner headline at the top of the front page, but lost out to the iceworms. It seems that the large type font had but two of the letter k. “NOAH’S ARK FOUND ON THE KOYUKOK” was out of the question; that headline in smaller type instead was shown above the story near the bottom of the page.
Modern technology has drastically changed the way newspapers are printed. No longer are printers’ health threatened by fumes from melting lead. Letters don’t have to be picked out one at a time from a California Job Case, then carefully spaced out to be snug enough to avoid a “work-up” or falling out of the page form. A keyboard greatly simplifies the job.
Nowadays the words typed out by the writer are captured electronically. The page designer grabs them and drops them into the page template, easily adjusting spacing as needed to make things visually pleasing. The template image is transferred onto a thin plate that is hooked onto the press. Copies of the completed newspaper are produced at the speed of 30,000 copies an hour—a hundred times faster than by the press shown above after it was hooked up to an electric motor.
At the same time, technology is threatening the life of the newspaper itself. A person now can hold a little device in one hand and find out what is happening anywhere in the world—at this very moment. The newspaper has become virtually irrelevant due to virtual activity.
Virtual activity lacks one thing, though, that a good newspaper provides: TRUTH. Editors question what goes out to the reader to ensure it is factual. Good newspapers provide the who, what, where, when and why—and whenever possible, the how.
Getting the story out quickly is important. Getting it right is vital.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.