Phototypesetting was always a transitional technology between metal and digital typesetting. It evolved through several stages, none of which ever really stuck. Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu, a film directed by David Loeb Weiss, captures one moment in this transition by chronicling the last day of metal typesetting at the New York Times on July 2, 1978. The Times was moving away from Linotype machines and on to the next level of typographic automation, where a new system used a hybrid of computerized storage and photographic reproduction techniques to set all the words in the daily newspaper.
The film was shot entirely in the New York Times building in midtown Manhattan, where production was vertically integrated, in this case literally, as a series of stacked basements and sub-basements where typesetting, printing, bundling, and even distribution were handled.
Daily production started from the editorial staff on the top floor and proceeded from one level down to the next, ending with delivery trucks pulling up to a loading dock and carting away bound papers for distribution.
It’s useful to think about what these technical changes allowed for the distribution of news. What resulted from being able to set the paper so much more quickly? More editions per day? More money for reporting? Perhaps a rearrangement of physical space? Or more resources for long articles and also a broader range of quick-hit stories? Shifts in typographic technology inevitably provoke deep changes in what can be said, how it is printed, and what effects these printed words have in the world.
The film is approximately 30 minutes. It is narrated by veteran Linotype operator Carl Schlesinger.