Bruce Morgan figures he can thank his shop teacher for steering him towards his 48-year-career at the Red Deer Advocate.
That Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School teacher kicked Morgan out of shop class for no good reason he could think of in the early 1960s — effectively killing his dreams of becoming a mechanic.
Not being one for academics, Morgan says he followed his father’s suggestion that he complete an apprenticeship in the print shop at the Advocate.
At the time, being a printer was the best paid trade outside of bricklaying, and he recalls his father, who was a proof reader at the Advocate in the late 1950s, telling him, “Show me a bricklayer who works 12 months of the year.”
Morgan started working in the Advocate mailroom in 1961 at the age of 16. He soon began hounding the print shop manager for an apprentice position, and by 1963, he was starting his training with molten lead heated to 335C.
Nearly 50 years and several dramatic job changes later, 64-year-old Morgan finally left the composing room last week, taking with him a wealth of information about a time when newspapers were made with linotype machines and were read in just about every home in a community — and not just by adults.
“We didn’t get a TV until five or six years after they were available,” recalls Morgan, who grew up reading newspapers and later thrived on the challenge of creating them.
He started working with metal hot plates and linotype (literally line o’ type) machines that turned a molten lead alloy into lines of newspaper script. The casting machine had revolutionized printing, especially newspaper publishing, making it possible for operators to set type for many pages on a daily basis.
A linotype operator would type in text on a 90-character keyboard. The machine assembled moulds for the letter forms into lines, which were cast as a single piece, or “slugs,” of metal type.
The problem was, if you weren’t careful to set the space bars tightly enough, molten metal would invariably splash you, says Morgan, who got a few burn spots on his arms from the process. “I was real lucky” to get no face burns.
There were no safety goggles back then and no gloves to protect anybody working with lead, recalls Morgan with a laugh. “There was just your brain. If you used your brain there wouldn’t be a problem.”
Unfortunately, one of his coworkers ended up in hospital from lead poisoning.
Morgan surmises the man was possibly not careful enough about washing his hands before eating. “And everybody smoked back then and some people handled their cigarettes more than others.”
Despite having a six-day work week, Morgan says it was a good time to be at the Advocate, which was then located across from the former Uptown Theatre. There was plenty of camaraderie, with workplace bowling and fastball teams, and long Saturday afternoon lunches at the Valley hotel.
By 1972, the Advocate had a new publisher, a new location — where the Jackpot Casino sits — and a new printing process: the cold press.
Morgan recalls being sent to Colorado for a three-week training course to learn how to work with offset printing. In the process, a machine deciphered from punch tape which letter to flash onto photo-sensitive paper.
The paper was then developed and cut and pasted onto a page, which was photographed and burned onto an offset plate.
Compared to molten lead, cold press was a piece of cake — but Morgan recalled at least one co-worker quit over the change. “I’ve always seen change as an opportunity to learn something new,” says Morgan, who approached computerization with the same optimistic attitude.
However, now that he’s leaving the newspaper business at a time when many papers across the U.S. are in danger of closing due to tough economics and changing reader trends, Morgan is finding optimism a little harder to muster.
But being “a pretty upbeat guy,” he believes newspapers will survive this transitional time because people will still want to know what’s happening in their own community.
While some think the future of newspapers is on the Internet, Morgan says he would hate to lose a tactile printed product that he can casually flip through while sipping his coffee.
The trouble with the Internet, he says, is that information can only be obtained by searching out a particular subject, while newspapers present a wealth of different stories from around the globe on a single page, a format that can open readers’ mind on subjects they formerly weren’t interested in or informed about.
“There’s not only a lot of new things you can learn about, but you can also read about why people think the way they do, and about what other people think” in columns and opinion pieces, says Morgan, who believes newspapers have made communities more broadminded and tolerant.
He recalls an Advocate co-worker predicting the demise of newsprint papers “within five years” after he first received computer training in 1981. While one of Seattle’s newspapers was the first to go only online a month ago, this hasn’t happened yet to most papers — and hopefully never will, he added.