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J U N E  1 9 9 7

Americana
Late Edition
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 computer

by John Fleischman

The Miehle Press 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.

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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 continues.

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 © 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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