06 June 2011

My time at Time: Learning the ropes

This is the third in a series of articles about my first job in publishing – in the editorial offices of Time Magazine at Rockefeller Center, New York City. It was 1965 and I had just moved to New York. The first article in this series was My time at Time: Getting a job as proofreader and the second article, My time at Time: A short, hectic working week.

To my horror in my first week, on-the-job training as a proofreader at Time meant starting work immediately as one-half of a two-person team. I found out later that only a few proofreaders were entrusted with the job of working with us rookies. Many of the 20-odd characters (I could say ‘20 odd characters’) working in that section in shifts had too many idiosyncrasies to be any use in the initiation of a newcomer.

All proofreading was done by teams, each of which included two proofreaders. Many of these partners had worked at Time for ten or more years. A proofreader friend from those days who has just retired after 39 years at Time eventually moved ‘up’ to copyediting. But in the 1960s such a progression was unthinkable. The various job categories were very much stratified. (1)
I have never known a more interesting collection of unusual people in one small group of fellow workers than those Time proofreaders. Almost all of them shared this attitude to the job: it was interesting, pleasant and well-paid work that allowed them to pursue more serious interests out of work. Most proofreaders worked a three-day week, so there was plenty of time for other interests. Long working days of 12 or more hours left little time for anything but work on Thursday to Saturday. But for the other four days of the week, proofreaders were freer than people with standard five-day jobs.

Some proofreaders even commuted from country locations beyond the famous satellite towns in the adjacent states of Connecticut and New Jersey that were home to conventional commuters. These longer-range commuters would spend two nights in hotels where they perhaps got special deals, or paid board somewhere for a two-night weekly stay. Most of them had professional or personal involvement in areas such as scholarship, writing, farming, philosophy or art. Their proofreading jobs fit in comfortably with those other pastimes. Some were kindly, some quirky, but almost all were fascinating to me, a young New England girl with little experience of such ‘characters’.
Each proofreader usually also had an area of expertise on which he or she (the group was split about 50–50, male and female) would be consulted by the others, and occasionally by writers and editors. However, there existed a kind of unspoken warfare (more or less serious, depending on the individuals involved) between the 25th-floor writers and editors and the 24th-floor production staff, especially proofreaders.

As each proofreading job was finished, the team was supposed to take the very next story on the top of the pile. The man who had administered my proofreading test, and who was responsible for progressing copy through the typesetting and proofreading process, would arrange the articles according to the priority which best suited the ‘make-up’ of the magazine’s layout pages.
The proofreading task consisted of correcting long galleys of each magazine article which had been keyed by typesetters operating noisy machines in a large adjacent area. (Experiments introducing computers into the publishing process were just then beginning, but the technology was not yet used for galley production.) The typesetters' job was to precisely reproduce the contents of the final typewritten copy which had resulted after writing and editing were finished. 

As well as the conventional galley printout, typesetters simultaneously produced a per­forated paper-tape version of the story – an early form of ‘memory databank’. It was this paper tape which, after corrections, would be used to ‘wire’ a final version of the story to the Chicago printing plant over dedicated phone lines. Older, experienced typesetters could even 'read' the perforated tape with their fingers and hastily patch in last-minute corrections by hand, instead of producing a whole new roll for each article. After typesetting, corrected galley proofs were used to make up precise layouts that would be airfreighted to the Chicago printing plant to show how typeset text and photos were to be laid out on each page.
The proofreading team received one copy of the uncorrected galley and the final typed draft which the typesetter had used as his original text. Remember: this was before word-processing and visual display units. The final edited draft of a story would have been typed up as an original with several carbon copies produced on sheets of various colours (pink, green, blue etc.) One of those carbon copies (the green, I think it was) would have gone to the relevant section's researcher (always a woman) whose final job it was to check and tick every fact, every unusual spelling, and every proper noun and name in the article, showing that she had checked each of these and affirmed each was correct. These 'check copies', signed off by the researcher, were kept upstairs in a central section of the editorial office and could be consulted by anyone who suspected an error of any sort after that article's researcher and writer had gone home. No one was supposed to alter anything so checked, without first consulting the researcher personally.

The final draft was sacrosanct. Not a 1etter or other character could be changed without the approval of the relevant editor, writer, copyreader (or subeditor) and/or researcher. Indeed, everyone who worked on a story at some point added his or her initials to the final draft and/or galley in the appropriate place. There was no anonymity at any stage of the production process – though it was not until the introduction of the Time essay in later years that individual writers received any by-lines in the actual pages of the magazine.
Incidentally, every time an error was discovered in the printed magazine, all of the initialled drafts and galleys were reviewed the following week so that blame could be properly apportioned. I think this was done as a point system and I remember everyone dreading the accumulation of errors for this reason. I acquired some distinction (albeit unwanted) for a notoriously amusing error I once made while working in a later position at Time. Then, one of my last jobs each week was to wire to the Chicago printing plant a list of ‘picture credits’ (photographers’ names) for the photos used in the final layouts. These names would then appear in small-size type alongside the appropriate photo. By some quirk I managed to credit a picture of an astronaut taking one of the first spacewalks to a certain New York photographer who often worked for Time, instead of correctly crediting NASA. (The photographer sent me a dozen roses to thank me for broadening his portfolio!)

(1) For example, all writers and editors were men, most of whom had ‘outside’ offices containing a window. All researchers were women and they worked in windowless ‘inside’ offices

In the next article in this series, I'll describe the tightly regimented process that proofreading teams were expected to follow for each article they read. In more than 40 years' involvement in publishing, I have never known a proofreading process of equivalent comprehensiveness.


Gypsy Dancer said...

Hello Chartreuse

Thankyou for viaiting my blog yesterday. You are always welcome any time.

I love hearing about the way things used to be done. I once worked in an office with the old typewriters and everyone had an ash tray on their desks and would be puffing away. It's a wonder any of us survived.

Chartreuse said...

Gypsy Dancer, thanks for reminding me about the heavy smoking in offices in those days. I'd forgotten about that. And it wasn't just tobacco in those cigarettes either. One of our copyboys once flew back from a trip to Chicago carrying a big red Time envelope stuffed full of marijuana.

Zoe said...

I spotted your out-of-place character ;-) Or should I say '1etter'

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I started this blog in 2009 when I became a full-time caregiver. My husband had been diagnosed a few years earlier with primary progressive aphasia. Over the next four years until his death in 2013, we went on a journey of discovery about this rare condition. My blog is about what I learned, how we both coped and how the journey deepened our love and appreciation of each other. Allen’s journey is over, but mine goes on.