Of bells and bygone newsrooms

Back in the days when newspapers were printed from lead type and wire serves news came from noisy teletype machines, everyone in the newsroom reserved a small part of their attention for the sound of bells.

The number of teletypes depended on how many wire services a newsroom subscribed to—AP, UPI, Reuters, local services—and because of their noisiness the machines were usually kept in a separate teletype room or alcove, along with inked replacement ribbons and rolls and boxes of paper to keep the machines fed. Photos in those days came from separate facsimile machines, emerging damp on a continuous roll.

The teletypes were wondrous exemplars of the electric age, big, metal-clad hunks of paper-spewing machinery that also emitted streams of yellow punch tape which could be fed directly into typesetting machines. When you picked out a story to run, you pulled the copy, usually tearing with the ubiquitous newsroom ruler call a pica pole, which measured in picas—a sixth of an inch—as well as inches. Then you looked at the cache of punch tape for the appropriately coded strip, rolled it up, then paperclipped it to the story.

After a go over with a fat Number 2 copy pencil — and, if needed, scissors and glue brush [cut and paste really was cut and paste back then]  you figured out a place for the story in your dummies [paper sheets marked to scale in column width and inch depth] then wrote a headline tailored to the column width, using a count system in which the lower case i, j, and l consumed half a space, uppercase M, W, and H counting for two, and lower case m and w rating one-and-a-half spaces. All the rest counted as one.

Every editor had a chart listing the numbers of spaces type sizes ranging from 14 points to 144 according to the number of columns slotted for the top of the story, ranging from a single column, two, three, four—up to eight, which was the standard newspage column width in those days.

Once the copy editing and headline-writing was finished, the editor would roll up the accompanying punch tape and clip it to the copy. At that point, depending on the newsroom, the editor would either yell “COPY” and wait for the copy “boy” or “girl” to take it to the typesetting room, roll up the items and cram them into a tube for a pneumatic delivery system, or, in my last pre-computer newsroom, drop it onto a conveyor belt feeding directly into “the back shop.”

But, for the newsroom, the most important piece of equipment was the bell attached to each teletype, the herald announcing the imminent transmission of something important.

Just how important was revealed in the number of times the chrome plated half-spheres mounted on the outside of the teletypes sounded out.

Three dings only moved the copy boy/girl [newsrooms “clerks” or “aides” in these more enlightened days]. But four bells raised some more jaded heads, and five bells would bring anyone not working on a deadline story to their feet and headed to the teletype room. But ten bells? For ten bells, people ran.

Under wire service protocol, three bells meant an advisory, a heads-up to editors that something significant was about to happen. One additional ring meant an URGENT story would follow, a significant story deemed of likely and timely interest to most wire service subscribers. Five bells heralded a BULLETIN, a critically important and breaking news story. But ten—for UPI—or twelve bells—for AP? Ten or twelve bells meant a FLASH, banner headlines in big type, and an event certain to dominate the attention of most readers and listeners for days to come.

My first FLASH—at least the first one I remember—came late on a Thursday afternoon in April, 1968. Once the number of bells hit six, I was on my feet, headed to the wire room of the Oceanside Blade-Tribune. I was already standing in front of the AP machine by the time the bells went quiet, watching the sheet of narrow paper as the strikers hammered out the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot

The computer era killed both the teletype and the photo fax, replacing them with purely digital data streams, displayed as pixellated screen images. Gone too the conveyor belt and pneumatic tubes [I still have one of the tube carriers from 1979, made by an outfit called Diebold].

The bells are gone, replaced by optional beeps and buzzes on editors’ computer terminals. The days when an entire newsroom would rise to the sound of the FLASH bells are long gone. Nowadays, sadly, a newsrooms resemble insurance company offices, complete with carpets and cubicles. . .

Had Edgar Allen Poe—no stranger to newsrooms—been around during the glory days of the teletype, he’d’ve added another verse to his most sonorous of poems, “The Bells.”

But for now, this will have to do:

Hear the loud alarum bells –
Brazen bells!
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,
Leaping higher, higher, higher,
With a desperate desire,
And a resolute endeavor
Now – now to sit, or never,
By the side of the pale – faced moon.
Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
What a tale their terror tells
Of Despair!
How they clang, and clash and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear, it fully knows,
By the twanging,
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows;
Yet the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling,
And the wrangling,
How the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells –
Of the bells –
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells –
In the clamor and the clanging of the bells!


4 responses to “Of bells and bygone newsrooms

  1. We would like to reprint this in a section we are doing on wire service teletypes please! Thansk Ed#

  2. Thank you for taking me back to 1976 when I was standing next to a clanking AP Wire machine as it cranked out the news that Jimmy Carter had won the presidential election! If I recall correctly, it was worth eight bells. We all made photo copies of the original. Mine is buried in a box in a storage bin. May I make a copy of this blog post for use when I teach journalism to new generations? I still use a pica pole in this digital age, mostly for nostalgic reasons, AND my home decorations include one of the original AP Wire Service metal cabinets. I rescued it from one of their techs taking it to the dump. It’s quite the conversation piece even among my friends who are not journalists. Best, Debbie Wolfe

  3. Joe Hussein Mama

    I recall another notable eight-bell moment; the frosty January day in 1986 when Space Shuttle Challenger and all hands aboard were lost.

  4. Oh the good old days when I started as copy boy for the old Pomona Progress Bulletin. When the newsroom was alive with reporters and photographers and the smell of cigarettes and coffee. Very exciting. Eventually made it to be chief photographer. A bygone era I remember fondly.

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