Saturday, December 29, 2018

Technological Obsolescence

     [A short story for you today. Do any of my Gentle Readers remember the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Printer’s Devil?” It aired on February 28, 1963, so you can easily be forgiven for not remembering it. In it Burgess Meredith played Smith, a linotypist who saves a failing newspaper. He does so by enchanting the paper’s linotype machine, such that any story it formats will come true. It develops that Smith is actually Satan himself.

     The recollection got me thinking: What would Satan do today, linotype being an obsolete, all but forgotten technology used by very few papers?

     (Copyright (C) 2018 by Francis W. Porretto. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.)

     J. Walter Housely had no pride. Those who knew him well often jibed that he’d had it surgically removed, lest it interfere with his chosen occupation. It might well have been so, for Housely was the proprietor and editor-in-chief of the Midnight Clarion, a publication whose contents could not have been produced by a staff, nor approved by an editor, that possessed a scintilla of pride.

     The Clarion, you see, was not a newspaper in the traditional sense. It was an entertainment tabloid, a paper for those who like their entertainment...lurid. And lurid the Clarion most dutifully provided, every Saturday morning.

     A typical issue would feature a four-color “photo” of events that that had not happened, had never happened, and hopefully never will happen, over a headline that screamed in 120-point font. Some of its more recent proclamations:


     It promulgated these headlines as “news.” Perhaps some of its readers took the claims as honest. Given the facility Americans have developed for lying to interviewers and survey takers with a perfectly straight face, no one could know for sure.

     Housely had a problem. The Clarion’s subscriber base was dwindling. The mechanism was old age: the average age of its readers was 78, and had been advancing for almost a year per year for a decade. Present trends continuing, another year would reduce the Clarion’s paid circulation below the point at which Housely could afford to keep it running.

     It wasn’t about pride. It was about money. Housely was barely fifty and had no skills outside those required to run the Clarion. Though single and not unattractive, he was unlikely to find a single, marriage-minded millionairess willing to keep him in the style to which he’d become accustomed. So his future comfort depended on keeping the Clarion afloat.

     The problem wasn’t Housely’s alone. The Clarion’s two competitors in the scandal and fancy industry, the Weekly Star and the World Examiner, were up against the same demographic stops. The three could coexist only because a reader of any one of them was almost guaranteed to be a reader of the other two. All of them dangled from the same slender threads of irreplaceable antique equipment, imaginative content producers, rapidly aging subscriber lists, and hope.

     The problem was much on his mind when the visitor appeared before his desk.


     “Mr. Housely?”

     The visitor’s voice was soft, gently inflected. In another era it would have been called cultured. It pulled Housely’s attention away from his balance sheet for the first time that day.

     The visitor was unremarkable of appearance...except that something about him spoke of power. He appeared to be in his middle fifties, stood a little below average height, had brown eyes and a full shock of brown hair. His waistcoat, baggy slacks, and plaid bow tie belonged in the 1930s at the very latest. He stood with his hands clasped at his waist.

     Housely swiftly assessed the man. Perhaps he’s got money. He donned his editor-in-chief smile.

     “Yes, can I help you?”

     “Perhaps,” the visitor said. He returned the smile. “My name is Smith. I notice that your paper still uses linotype. It’s heartening to find a publication that still produces itself that way. You see,” he said, “I’m a linotypist. The best in the world.”

     Damn. He’s looking for work.

     “Well,” Housely said, “I’m pleased that you’re...heartened, but I already have a linotypist, and I’m afraid I have no need for another. But thank you for your interest.” He started to rise.

     Smith raised a hand. Nothing more, just the usual little flip that says give me a moment longer. Housely sat as if compelled by an irresistible force.

     “I’m not exaggerating my prowess, Mr. Housely. I’m the best. So much better than anyone else who’s ever sat before a linotype machine that there’s no comparison. It’s not just a matter of speed or accuracy, though I excel at both. I have an extra skill that no other linotypist has ever had or ever will.”

     Housely was used to bombast. It was his stock in trade. Smith’s self-exaltation was new only in the occupation of the man who professed it. He smiled and shook his head gently.

     “Unless your...extra skill can bring the Clarion legions of new readers, I’m afraid it would be of no use to me. So you see—”

     Smith smiled. “But it would. Would you allow me to demonstrate it?”

     He’s persistent, give him that. Oh, what the hell. It’s not like I have a hot date waiting.

     Housely rose and ushered Smith into the production room.


     Smith stood admiring the old linotype machine for a moment before settling in on its operator’s seat.

     “A venerable but excellent example of the technology,” he said as he cracked his knuckles and surveyed the controls. “Many of its contemporaries are in trash heaps today. A great pity, really. There should be an old-machines’ home for them. Perhaps,” he said as he smiled over his shoulder at Housely, “with the extra revenues my skill will bring you, you’ll be the one to found it!”

     Housely restrained his impatience, smiled and nodded. “Please proceed.”

     “Ah, but first we need a story, Mr. Housely. Something juicy, as is the Clarion’s m├ętier. But not too juicy. Just enough to convince you that I’m not kidding about my special skill. Say, what’s the name of that young Scotsman who’s currently tearing up the Ryder Cup competition with his incredible putting? Ian Westlake, isn’t it?”

     “I believe so,” Housely said.

     “If I’m not mistaken he’s on the links at St. Andrews as we speak, isn’t he?” Smith said. “Wouldn’t it be something if his putting skill were to desert him right now?” And he set his fingers to the keys.

     It seemed to Housely that only a moment later Smith pulled a proof sheet from behind the linotype and handed it to him. The headline was Clarion screechy:

Westlake Can’t Putt!
     Ian Westlake, who has dominated the previous rounds of this year’s Ryder Cup with his amazingly accurate putting, has suddenly and inexplicably lost his touch. His last four attempts at a putt that would have been easily within his demonstrated skills haven’t just missed the cup; they’ve been embarrassments. One flew nearly seventy yards past the cup. Another rolled in the opposite direction. The third and fourth took veering, wobbling courses that circled the cup before making right-angle turns and rolling off the green.
     When Westlake lined up his putt at the sixth hole, the shaft of his putter snapped, apparently from hitting the green. He straightened, announced his immediate withdrawal from the match, and has not been seen since.

     “Now,” Smith said to the incredulous Housely, “where’s the nearest television?”


     SportsChannel covered Westlake’s momentous embarrassment in real time. There was no possibility of a spoof or put-on. The Scots phenom had failed in the most humiliating way any sportsman could suffer. The commentators speculated openly about the possibility that he might leave golf for good.

     Housely could only gape.

     “Your special” he croaked.

     Smith smiled. “Yes. Exactly. With me as your linotypist, the Clarion would become a true newspaper. Everything it reports would be accurate down to the smallest detail. And your stories would be more up-to-the-minute than anyone else’s. You’d scoop the Times and the Post with every story you publish, each and every day!”

     He spread his arms in celebration of journalistic glory to come. “And imagine the fun your content people would have! These stories they produce would go from absurd flights of imagination to hard, cold reality! They could write about earthquakes in Brazil, or massive bird attacks in Prussia, or a real alien invasion in Fairlawn, New Jersey, and whatever they wrote would come true! None of your competitors—” Smith halted and studied Housely’s expression. “Oh, excuse me, you’re not used to thinking of other papers as your competitors, are you?”

     Housely shook his head.

     “Well, you will from now on,” Smith said. “And they’ll think of you as their ultimate nemesis. Every minute of every day.” He smiled. “Will you have me as your linotypist, Mr. Housely?”

     “Salary?” Housely croaked.

     Smith shook his head. “By now you should have realized that I don’t require any such thing.”

     Housely thought furiously.

     He could save the Clarion. He could destroy every other news medium in existence. He could make me the emperor of journalism. He could—

     “Mr. Smith,” he said slowly, “would you mind giving me a day to ponder your...offer? I’d like to sleep on it, if you can stand a brief delay in taking a position here.”

     Smith spread his hands in acceptance of the request. “Of course, Mr. Housely. Shall I return at the same time tomorrow?”

     “Yes,” Housely said, “that would be entirely adequate.” He fought down a tide of terror and offered the linotypist his hand. They shook.

     Housely waited at his office window until Smith was nowhere in sight, then summoned the entire Clarion staff to his office and waited until all thirty-five of his employees had crowded into the room.

     “Friends,” he said, “I’m afraid a terrible moment is upon us. A moment I had hoped to avert: the closing of our beloved Clarion. Today was our last day of operation, and the last issue was the last we’ll ever print. You’ll each be paid in full for the current pay period, and I’ll provide you—any of you that wants one—with my warmest recommendation and assessment of your skills. I can’t express how sad I am that we’ll be parting company, have forced my hand.”

     The faces were uniformly dismayed.

     “No white knights, boss?” one of the content boys said.

     “Sadly, no,” Housely said. “Not that I haven’t searched high and low for one. But it’s not to be.” He came out from behind his desk and methodically shook the hand of each of his employees. “In fact, I’ve arranged to dispose of the building with all its equipment. Tomorrow morning it will all other hands. So make sure you’ve gathered up all your personal possessions before you make your exit. This is the end, my friends. Godspeed to all of you.”

     He sent them on their way with the most sincere smile he could manage.


     The ten five gallon jerry cans made a snug fit in the back of Housely’s Explorer. He rubbed his lower back two-handedly from the strain of filling and stowing them, then mounted the driver’s seat and ignited the engine. The pump attendant watched him curiously as he drove away.

     The Clarion comes first, of course. I can probably do the Weekly Star immediately after, but the World Examiner will have to wait until tomorrow. Thank God no other rag still uses linotype, just us scandal and fancy peddlers.

     I just have to hope that Paul and Wes will forgive me. I think God will.

     Strange to have an attack of ethics so late in life. Better late than never, I suppose.

     He pulled into the Clarion’s parking lot, parked and debarked from his Explorer, unloaded two jerry cans from the rear, and toted them to the building’s front doors with the stride of decision.



Kye said...

Today Satan would work at Google. Oh, wait!

CGHill said...

"Don't be evil," indeed.

jabrwok said...

So it wasn't a magic linotype, but a magic linotypist. Pity, as otherwise the tables could be turned.

SATAN REPENTS!!!!, followed by a story about the Prince of Darkness abjuring his evil ways and begging for forgiveness or oblivion.

I'm reminded of another story, also from the Twilight Zone IIRC, about a used car salesman who had the misfortune to come into possession of a haunted car. Or "cursed". Whoever owned the vehicle couldn't lie (except about the aesthetic qualities of the car itself, which seemed a bit vain on that point). He ended up selling it, guaranteed haunted!, to an agent of the Soviet Premier:-D.

John said...

It's funny that you mention that Twilight Zone episode. It was written by Charles Beaumont who wrote the second largest number of TZ episodes after Rod Serling. I am currently reading a collection of his short stories. He was a great talent whose stories were also used for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Outer Limits. He also seems to have been a writer's writer. The book I am reading has glowing prefaces to each of the stories from his contemporaries (which included among others Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson - who, I believe, was the third most prolific contributor to TZ). Unfortunately he is almost completely obscure these days. I mentioned him to some friends (both librarians and very well read) and neither had heard of him (they do know Twilight Zone quite well and were surprised to hear he had written so many of them).

Anyway I highly recommend reading his short stories and you can look here for the other TZ episodes he wrote:

Happy New Year, Fran!

John said...

Okay, we need one more John to comment . . . !
Nice story - very satisfying end. It's good to start 2019 with something hopeful.