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A letterpress the size of a truck

Copyright =A9 1997 by John Fleischman. All rights reserved. The Atlantic
Monthly; June 1997; Late Edition; Volume 279, No. 6; pages 48-49.


The mighty Miehle, a letterpress the size of a truck, which for thirty
years printed the news for Yellow Springs, Ohio, falls victim to the=

by John Fleischman

PASSING through Yellow Springs, Ohio, not long ago, I couldn't stay out of
the alley that leads to the News office. I had to see for myself that the
Miehle was really gone after the big reshuffle. The renovation had eaten up
the old back shop where for the past thirty years the Yellow Springs News
had been printed by the Miehle, a sheet-fed flatbed-cylinder press
manufactured around 1907. The Miehle, which started with a bang and had an
electric motor the size of a beer keg kicking over a cast-iron cylinder the
diameter of a wagon wheel, certainly took up space. The News, a fiercely
independent weekly in a small college town near Dayton, certainly needed
new offices -- and the revenue from a new retail tenant. Still, I was
disoriented. The cavernous pressroom had vanished in a maze of new
Sheetrock. The Yellow Springs News now goes to press in another town. It
took some squinting around partitions to figure out where the Miehle once
stood, but no effort to recall it.

Once, the press had a whole estate -- the Fourth -- to itself. "WORKING
PRESS" read the badge that let reporters through the barricades at fires,
elections, and executions. Electronics was still a sideshow as late as
1960, when the New Yorker press critic A. J. Liebling coined the dictum
"Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." What
guarantees remain is an interesting question, yet until I tried to give
away an honest-to-goodness working press, I didn't realize how far the
terms of the debate had shifted. Discuss this article in the Media &
Current Events forum of Post & Riposte. Long ago I saw the first words for
which I was paid emerge from the Miehle's inky heart. A letterpress, a
machine that printed from raised metal type, was a mechanical wonder of
moving rods, rollers, and cylinders. Truly hot off the press, the printed
sheets floated down into the Miehle's receiving box, copy after copy -- my
words, my words. So when Amy Harper, the editor and a part owner of the
News, called a few years ago to ask if I knew anyone who wanted a printing
press as big as a good-sized truck, I felt obliged to help put the Miehle
safely out to pasture. The News had persisted with the Miehle and the
traditional craft of "hot-lead" printing long after virtually every other
American paper had gone over to computers and offset printing. When Harper
called, the Miehle had already been retired for two years from its weekly
press run. It would be free to a good home, she said, provided the new
owners would take it away. Otherwise it would go to the junkyard.

Over the next months Harper and I spent far too much time imploring
complete strangers to take in an old newspaper press. We badgered museums,
historical societies, printing experts, hobbyists, and the Smithsonian
Institution, without luck. We had near misses: the Miehle was exactly
thirty inches too long to fit into a new display at the Ohio Historical
Society, in Columbus; it was seven years too young for a nineteenth-century
historical village near Cleveland; it was too common a model to interest
the Smithsonian's Division of Graphic Arts. And we had one disaster: an
offer from a printing museum in Keithsburg, Illinois, was washed out by the
Great Mississippi Flood of 1993.

The Miehle was not just another obsolete machine; it represented an entire
technology -- indeed, a way of life for 500 years. Around 1450 Johannes
Gutenberg discovered how to cast lead printing type from metal molds. The
individual letters could be assembled and reassembled into words,
sentences, paragraphs, even an entire Bible. Fastened tightly together, the
letters could be inked and pressed into paper over and over. The
letterpress spread across fifteenth-century Europe faster than anything
else except the plague. One expert has calculated that in the forty-five
years after Gutenberg printed his famous Bible, 1,120 printing offices in
260 different towns in seventeen European countries turned out 10 million
copies of 40,000 different works.

Presses, typesetting, and picture reproduction improved over the centuries,
but Gutenberg's root technology -- printing from raised metal letters --
remained the same right up to the late 1960s, when I first walked into the
back shop of the Yellow Springs News. In retrospect I can see how the News
became an industrial anachronism, but at the time, the back shop looked the
way most newspaper back shops did -- noisy, dirty, and on deadline.

The News was edited by a Christian pacifist who abhorred racism and the
sale of packaged liquor, and was printed by a Quaker war resister whose
wife had spelled him at the press while he served twenty months in federal
prison for his beliefs. Kieth Howard, the editor, and Ken Champney, the
printer-publisher, saw their newspaper as being of a piece with their
beliefs. They put their business faith in a dying technology because it
suited them perfectly. It needed little capital and much labor. What was
obsolescent elsewhere made their lives easier in Yellow Springs.

Indeed, over the next few years the News snapped up some amazing machines
-- scarcely worn but suddenly obsolete -- at fire-sale prices, as bigger
newspapers abandoned letterpress. The News was sustained by the fact that
investment in this obsolete equipment required only a small amount of
capital and by the willingness of its "mechanical" employees to put in long
hours at lower wages to use it. "What one makes per hour at work is not the
key factor," Lynton Appleberry, a legendary typesetter at the News, told
me. "It's how many hours you do work. You don't have millions of dollars
tied up in presses. You divide up any money that's around and you do it
because you like to do it."

Appleberry liked to run a Linotype -- a typesetting machine -- and he was a
legend at the keyboard because he improved copy. Especially in the days
when the News was setting college newspapers, Appleberry would silently fix
spelling, sort out wandering clauses, and impose agreement in number and
tense. He also inserted, without warning, his "Linotypist's Notes" --
parenthetical glosses under that heading to fill in a news story's missing
but vital background. Computers long ago learned to spell. Someday they may
know grammar. They will never write a Linotypist's Note.

THE paper operated in an extended-family spirit, employing generations of
kids, restless journeymen, and countercultural types who were good with
their hands. Getting the paper out was all that mattered to the News
regulars, who tended to favor the simple life, organic gardening, and
technology they could afford and control.

In the end it was human skill that failed, not the Miehle. As the
letterpress printers retired from the News, there was no one to replace
them. And no one had the heart to talk some kid into apprenticing as a
linotyper in the 1990s. Also, the price of the new technology dropped. The
computers that now set type and send out the bills at the News are
relatively cheaper than new Linotypes were in their day. Of course, buying
an offset press for the News is out of the question. Owning a press, owning
any capital investment of that size today, is like living with a tiger in a
studio apartment -- you must feed it constantly.

When A. J. Liebling cast his famous pearl about owning a press, he was
worried that the chains would buy up papers across the country, eviscerate
local distinctiveness, and crank out high-profit, low-journalism baloney.
As far as I can see, that's pretty much what happened. It didn't happen in
Yellow Springs, partly because the News did own its own press, free and
clear, for so many years.

Swimming against the tide of technology left the News unencumbered with
huge debt. When ownership passed, control of the News stayed local, partly
because the new owners provided themselves as human capital, and partly
because there wasn't a lot to fight over. That was the Miehle's gift to
Yellow Springs. It kept a small-town paper in small-town hands. A hired
bean counter would say that the News building, formerly the garage of a
long-defunct Chevrolet dealership, was the only significant asset. That
would ignore the real franchise -- the habit of being this peculiar town's
peculiar newspaper for so long. The Miehle is gone, but that franchise

AMY Harper is the latest editor and part-owner. Editing a feisty country
weekly, Harper says, is fairly stressful and not terribly well paid, but
she puts out a distinctive paper. It reflects Yellow Springs, a liberal and
slightly bohemian island in a sea of midwestern corn and conservatism. The
News runs about two or three times as much news as the average "community"
paper. Every word is locally written. But even with computers, labor is
still the biggest cost, and with an offset printer's bill to pay as well,
the News couldn't afford to pasture the superannuated press indefinitely on
rentable floor space. So it fell to Harper to show the Miehle the door.

Finally Harper told me that not even the junkyard was keen on taking the
Miehle. Its beautiful cast-iron machinery had no value as scrap. At this
dark moment the printers' grapevine brought us John Wilcox, a consulting
mechanical engineer from Delaware, Ohio, who had a collection of antique
machines. The fundamental science of engineering is lifting heavy things,
so with hand jacks, rollers, and next to no assistance, Wilcox whisked the
Miehle out the alley door and onto his stake-bed truck. Back at home he
reassembled the Miehle in a storage building. At last report he had just
found a new power source to drive it.

I was both grateful and sad. The Miehle had been snatched back from rusty
death, but there was no bringing back its usefulness as a working press.
Once, the Miehle had been essential to Yellow Springs. In memory I can
still hear it stamping out the issue each Wednesday afternoon. One such
afternoon long ago an eerie silence from the pressroom drew me down the
alley, where I found the makeup man fuming idly by the composing stone. A
letterpress page was made up of hundreds of pieces of metal -- Linotype
slugs, headline type, rules, and engraving blocks. All had to be fitted
together in a metal frame called a chase and locked tight for the press. A
missing story was a literal hole in the page, and the makeup man was
standing by the stone with his fist in the middle of the front page. In the
editor's office a poetic friend of Kieth Howard's was wrestling with the
last stanza of an ode to autumn. "We're holding," said the disgusted makeup
man, "for a late-breaking poem." That was freedom of the press.

Photograph: John Fleischman

Copyright =A9 1997 by John Fleischman. All rights reserved. The Atlantic
Monthly; June 1997; Late Edition; Volume 279, No. 6; pages 48-49.

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