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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

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Stone subs, flongs and formes, how we used to get the paper out in the old hot metal days

These Daily Mirror flongs were originally blue but have been sprayed gold

By ALEX COLLINSON


As a retired old hack who went from hot metal to desktop computers via mainframe systems, I wonder if I might add a note or two to your item on journalism jargon?


Banging out has its origins in the hot metal composing room and was adopted by newsrooms. Back in the days when newspapers were wrought from craft skills and heavy machinery, the final stage of making up a hot metal page involved the compositor (aka comp) bashing a rectangular block of wood, known as a plane, with a mallet over the face of the type to make sure every line in the page was firmly seated. So when a comp walked away to retirement, all his mates would send him off with a cacophony of banging thus created. It was a questionable honour given to me, a former stone sub, at the Daily Mirror. 


Stone sub? A page of metal type obviously requires a flat surface on which to sit in its metal frame (forme) and though such workshop tables were made of steel, they would once have been made of slate, hence ‘stone’. So a stone sub was a sub-editor who worked with the compositor fine-tuning copy to make it fit its allotted space and mending ‘bust’ headlines, ie. headlines where the sub upstairs had overestimated the wording that would fit in the typeface specified on the page layout.


The comp had to read type upside down and from right to left. The stone sub would work on the opposite side of the stone to the comp with the bottom of the page nearest him. With a deadline fast approaching, it would be expedient for a stone sub to lean over the forme and indicate cuts to the comp rather than trying to find appropriate proofs among the pile of wet dabs — don’t ask — and galley proofs.


Flong, helpfully described by Neil Benson as papier-mâché, was in fact made of something rather more durable, a card for sure, about two millimetres thick and very dense, thus able to withstand the considerable pressure and heat of the moulding process that produced the semi-cylindrical plates for the presses. Looking at a flong in the flesh, it seems little short of miraculous that it could hold the detail of the dot structure of the monochrome pictures (half-tones). 


I regrettably failed to secure the flong of the last hot metal front page of the Daily Mirror, but I do have the first edition front page (three stars in the dateline) from April 15, 1981, celebrating the landing of the Space Shuttle Columbia. Why, you might ask, three stars for the first edition? Well if the page didn’t change for the second edition, the printer would just chisel off one star from the printing plate on the press to identify all copies for that edition, saving time and expense replating. And if it didn’t change for the third edition, another star would be dispatched, thus the third edition was known as the one star. No prizes for guessing the moniker for the fourth edition, sometimes dubbed the Fleet Street edition due its limited circulation.


Alex Collinson

Penarth, South Wales

14th June 2023