21 May 2011

My time at Time: Getting a job as proofreader

This is the first in a series of articles about my first job in publishing – in the editorial offices of Time Magazine at Rockefeller Center, New York City. It was 1965 and I had just moved to New York with my new husband, who was already working for Time. With his help, I secured a job as proofreader and thus began a fascinating period in my young working life.

For four years in the late 1960s, I worked at Time Magazine in New York City, initially as a ‘proofreader’ and then in a position that used to be called 'girl friday', working for the Production Editor. Since then I have had a lot of different jobs in publishing, but I have never had a job in which I learned so much so quickly – not only about writing, editing, and publishing but also about the complicated, sometimes amusing, often frustrating but never boring relationships that exist in an environment where everyone is dedicated to achieving a first-class output in spite of incredible pressure and crazy time constraints.

All of Time's employees were expected to share in a fanatical pursuit of factual accuracy and grammatical correctness, of which the copy-handling system was but one example. Indeed, in what was then a predominantly black and white publication, with only a limited number of photos and a few graphics each week (mainly maps) to relieve the monotony of text blocks, the attention paid to the quality of this text would be foreign to many young journalists working today. So when I migrated to Australia in 1970 and began work as a journalist in Sydney, imagine my surprise to find many Australian journalists had a collection of favourite stories about awful errors in the pages of Time.
What I hadn’t appreciated as a starry-eyed young American, of course, was that Time, in spite of the best efforts of a worldwide stable of correspondents, was very much a US publication with a typically American self-centredness. The facts and impressions recorded and reported so diligently by international correspondents were, at that time, the raw material from which New York writers and editors built up Time's international stories. Canada was an exception. Time ran an editorial office there and produced four or so pages of Canadian content in a special section of each issue. And in the late 1960s, there was some discussion about setting up such an office in Sydney. But nothing like the Canadian editorial office ever existed in Australia, where Time maintained a production centre, but not an editorial facility. Anyway, to Time's founders America was the centre of the known universe, and ‘America’ meant the United States. Their successors who were my bosses seemed to narrow the focus even further, and the Time-Life Building in Rockefeller Center became the epicentre of the universe. And working for what everyone at Time considered the most important newsmagazine in the world, one came gradually to share this view.
Time's proofreading department was the battlefront on which the magazine waged war on errors. To get a job as a proofreader, I had to study my Webster’s Dictionary and the Time-Style manual (I remember this as a collection of loose-leaf sheets). I was then 'briefed' for the proofreading test by a friend of my first husband, who also worked for the company. But even with this insider preparation, I found the subsequent test formidable.
The proofreading test consisted of a 60-centimetre-long galley proof of a story that contained more errors than I had ever then or have ever since seen in one magazine-length story. Every kind of grammatical inaccuracy and semantic confusion, as well as obvious factual error, seemed to be represented. The biggest problem was finding enough space in the margins to show corrections, which had to be very precisely indicated, using the correct proofreader’s marks. It was also essential to distinguish between 'queries' and 'corrections’. But since the working methods of Time proofreaders were quite different from the conditions in which the test was administered, some latitude was allowed on this point.
After about 20 minutes, my corrected galley was checked by the large, taciturn man who was the boss of the typesetters. I remember sitting at his desk in a deserted office on a Monday or Tuesday, which would have been the only time of the week when his office was not full of running, yelling copyboys, writers, typesetters and layout staff. Blue pencil in one hand, red in the other, he studied my corrections. All around us were scattered the remains of the previous week's galleys and drafts. I learned later that cleaning ladies at Time were trained to clean around piles of old galleys and discarded layouts. At most, they picked up material off the floor and placed it neatly on tables. But deciding what could safely be thrown away was not considered a job for cleaning staff, who might not recognise that some torn bit of galley or layout needed to be kept for one reason or another. As a result, by the end of the week all production offices looked like a disaster zone. And the first job of the week for production staff was to sort through the previous week's mess and file or discard every piece of paper.
I was supposed to have corrected a certain number of errors in order to pass the test. Some allowance was made for the limited time I’d been given, because in theory at least, proofreaders were supposed to be given as much time as they required. When my corrections had been ticked and counted, my total came up two or three marks below the ‘pass mark’. Discovering this, the old typesetter, whose reputation for gruffness and bluntness had already caused me two weeks' anxiety, quietly took his blue pencil and added a few more correct answers on my behalf.
'You're a bright kid,' he said, 'and you betta not make me sorry about this later.' Then he winked at my nearby ‘sponsors’ and told me to report back next Thursday for on-the-job training. It seems I was now a Time proofreader.
In the second article in this series, I'll describe what it was like to work in Time's production department in the 1960s.


About me

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I started this blog in 2009 when I became a full-time caregiver. My husband had been diagnosed a few years earlier with primary progressive aphasia. Over the next four years until his death in 2013, we went on a journey of discovery about this rare condition. My blog is about what I learned, how we both coped and how the journey deepened our love and appreciation of each other. Allen’s journey is over, but mine goes on.