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Old and in the way…

Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times

Last Friday was National Paste-Up Day. For most folks working in publishing today, pasting is something you do in Microsoft Word or InDesign. It’s all digital. 

Paste-up, as a term, isn’t something you really hear anymore. You still do layout, but there isn’t any need for a paste-up phase. You layout and save and send. 

When I first started in newspapers, though, we still did layout on a sheet of grid paper. Paraffin wax was used for pasting content into place, so it could be peeled and repositioned as necessary. (I say we, but as a writer I had little to nothing to do with that particular job.)

It was the year 2000, so we were using computers. 

We even used Photoshop – on images we shot and developed on film before scanning them into a Mac for editing. I got my first two daily newspaper jobs in part because I knew how to develop film and could load a reel and canister in complete pitch-black darkness. 

But press plates were still made using old-school photographic methods and physical print outs. When I first started in newspapers things that had been formatted and printed out from a computer were cut, trimmed, positioned, pasted, and taken to the press room where the magic happened and a paper was printed. 

At the daily papers the transition from physical layout to virtual layout happened pretty quickly, even if the sheets were still printed out instead of sent as a digital file at first. 

But I was blessed, between those daily newspaper jobs and other writing gigs, to work with someone at a weekly paper who still did old school paste-up. There were rolls of decorative tape used for ad borders. There were exacto knives and self-healing cutting sheets. And there was a paraffin wax roller that photos, text, and graphics took a quick trip through before being placed on the page. 

You could smell the wax melting, or maybe it was the smell of the warmer slowly burning up wax spills and dust. Regardless, on layout day, the office had a different energy and a different smell. The energy is one anyone working against a deadline can understand and appreciate. The smell, so tied to my first memories of that feeling, isn’t something younger writers and designers will share with me. 

The last time I did work for Debbie, my mentor and first editor, she had moved to an all-digital layout just like everyone else. But I remember, in those days before reliable, high-speed internet, the waxy pages zipped in a leather portfolio for delivery to the printer. I remember the transition to high-capacity ZIP disks with digital files and print out backups tucked in that same oversized portfolio. 

I’m not particularly nostalgic for it. It certainly wasn’t any more efficient or environmentally sound. It required a larger team and more coordination. I think the immediacy of online publishing, when needed, could be the saving grace of weekly print publications like our own in the modern world. I’m not a Luddite, by any means. 

I don’t want a return to the “good old days” of physical layout. 

But it’s interesting, in the wake of a holiday celebrating an obsolete practice, to think of how much newspapers have changed over the last 20 years. It will be even more interesting to see where we go over the next 20. 

Jeremy D. Wells can be reached at editor@cartercountytimes.com 

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