Hot Lead

Paperweights aren’t nearly as necessary as they were back when windows had to be left open to catch any breeze or when heavy, brass-bladed desk fans were the only source of cooling.  Those days were mostly before my time, but I do have a small collection of paperweights.  Most of them I consider artworks; they are made of blown glass imbedded with millefiore or whorls of color and iridescence.  It’s a modest collection.  However, one paperweight looks merely functional.  It is a small lead ingot, about three inches long, with slanted sides and a flat top imprinted with what seem to be random letters.  And, yet, I value it greatly.  The ingot was given to me by the city editor of the small daily newspaper where I worked when I was in my twenties.

The editor rescued the ingots on the day the scrap people came to take away the old linotype machines gathering dust in a corner of the composing room.  She gave an ingot to each reporter in the newsroom to mark the passage of an era.  The ingot has become more symbolically important to me over time.

Before linotype machines were invented in the 1880s, type was set by hand, letter by letter, on a composing stick.  The innovation of the linotype was that it used a keyboard to set lines of matrices or molds into which molten lead was poured from a burner on the machine to form a line, or slug, of type.  Although this sounds cumbersome—and the machine itself was a hulking beast—the linotype increased the speed at which type could be set.  Used in some form for nearly a hundred years, it permitted the growth of the modern newspaper.  At the risk of sounding like an old coot, I suspect young people today have as much difficulty appreciating printed newspapers as I had appreciating the linotype machine back when I was a young reporter.

Today, surrounded by electronic communication media, we are constantly threatened with information overload.  We find it hard to appreciate what newspapers and printing have meant in human history.  Suffice it to say that a person with a printing press was once a political (and sometimes theological) force.

Hollywood saw the romanticism of “a man with a printing press”* and eventual crusading editors and reporters, putting them at the center of a number of films.  These famously include Deadline, USA (1952) with Humphrey Bogart facing down the mob and All the President’s Men (1976), dramatizing the Watergate scandal (newly relevant again).  More recently, Spotlight (2015) falls into the category of films about investigative, revelatory journalism.

Of course, a person with a printing press isn’t always or necessarily a social good.  A small town weekly newspaper in the region covered by the daily I worked for was owned at that time by a man who was a curmudgeon and a bit of a crank.  He was always looking for a fight, sure that he was right and anyone who got crosswise with him was wrong.   He obviously relished writing his weekly editorials and sometimes printed scathing articles on the front page.  Locals seemed to take him with a grain of salt and read his newspaper for what they had always read it for: births, deaths, marriages, police and fire reports, news about the school board, city council, sewer improvements, church luncheons, women’s club events, Rotary Club meetings, and county fair results.

Not very many years after I moved on to a different career path, newspapers fell on hard times.  The mid-sized city where I live now has a paper that, back in the day, considered itself the dominant news source for a good chunk of the state.  Now it’s a pathetic shadow of its former glory and not much more than a “penny-saver” paper published for the ads.  Some say the Internet killed newspapers, but papers were already in trouble, the victims of media corporation buyouts and “business plans.”  The new owners who swept through the region looked at the newspaper as a source of profit rather than a voice for the community.  From a purely business point of view, the money-making part of the newspaper is advertising.  The news is just a vehicle.  So, according to that logic, the areas that can be trimmed are the news departments.  The local newspaper began, literally, to shrink in size.  A smaller paper meant less personnel.  The news photographers went first, then correspondents, then section editors and their reporters, and eventually even the majority of “city” reporters and news writers.  The local paper now operates with a skeleton news staff and complains that the community doesn’t support it.  I would say that the reverse is true.

Is the Internet a viable replacement?  Through the Internet, we can be inundated by information. But the Internet is also inadequate to the needs of communities still hungry for news about themselves.  My husband and I finally let the paper subscription go when the circulation department tried to raise our rates to pay for the online version of the paper we didn’t read.  Now, we get some local news online but just don’t read much about our community at all.  As locals say in the coffee shops, what this town needs is a good newspaper.  Indeed, small town dailies and weeklies do pretty well for themselves.  It’s the midsized cities’ and metropolitan newspapers that have suffered the most.  Big dailies have hung on, although sometimes just barely.  Ironically, in the torrent of information through electronic sources, we miss solid, flesh and bone community.

At least the newspaper—or news source—as a mover in society isn’t completely dead yet.  The corruption, mendacity, and attempted authoritarianism of our country’s current president seem to have revitalized some of the bigger newspapers and media outlets to dig in and start doing some real investigative reporting.

My lead ingot is a paperweight in a society that talks about going paperless.  But paperless doesn’t have to mean purposeless.


*For a timely article about a woman with a printing press, follow this link:



Human life is full of little ironies.  For example, one hot area for collectors is ephemera, things we produce that aren’t meant to last, like calendars, tickets, magazines, and posters.  Because these things are meant to be used and thrown away, what survives becomes valuable.   Usually these items are paper, but they can also include bits of film or video or even advertising items, like plastic whistles or the metal “cricket” clickers given away with Pol Parrot shoes when I was a little kid.

Another irony that fascinates me is The Cloud and other amorphous computer storage places.  If you have a smart phone, at some point you’ve probably thought or said that it contains “my life,” like your mother’s phone number, your grocery list, the date of your next dentist appointment, fitness records, email, texts, and a dozen apps that keep you entertained.  If you’re like me, you shiver with dread at the thought of losing or dropping it.  For that reason, you may “sync” your phone with your home computer or back up the information on The Cloud.  In fact, you may back up all your computer data on The Cloud.  Our treasured electronic devices are fallible, after all.

Ironically, The Cloud is, itself, merely an electronic device, an array of computer servers somewhere, consisting of diodes and circuit boards, with wires hanging off the back.  Although the industry depends on redundancy to keep running, all the machinery is merely machinery and just as susceptible to flood, fire, insect infestations, human error, and natural and man-made disasters.  It is all also susceptible to business failures and power outages that can be permanent.  Even though we intend to keep the details of our lives, the medium in which we keep them is by its nature ephemeral.

Perhaps, in the cosmic view of things, this transition from paper records to ephemeral electricity is a good thing.  All life is transitory.  After all, human history and the brief lives of mayflies (genus Ephemera) are different only in matters of scale.  In one sense, humanity has been preparing to disappear for millennia.  We’ve gone from writing on stone and clay tablets to writing on paper and now to zeroes and ones in the wiring of big black boxes.  No new iteration of humanity or potential intelligent species is going to stumble upon our banks of computers a thousand years from now and devote years of scholarship to deciphering what is written there, because nothing is written there.  It is encoded and requires wiring that lasts a thousand years plus knowledge of specific electronic manipulation to even be available for decoding.

But we don’t have to wait for a thousand years for bits of the future-past to disappear.  While we might feel blushing amazement still to find and read the love letters grandpa and grandma wrote 60 years ago, the love notes we might write on email or the limited characters of Twitter have already disappeared, never to be seen by wondering grandchildren decades from now.

Maybe it doesn’t matter, because our grandchildren’s Internet-influenced attention spans will be shot to heck anyway.