The giant leap: How we broke the news

Wednesday, 29 August 2012 01:25 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By D.C. Ranatunga

The news of the death of Neil Armstrong took my mind back to the late evening of Sunday 20 July 1969. I was then with the Observer functioning as the Features Editor.

That evening we were busy with the Magazine Edition of the paper, as the Poya Day edition was named after the introduction of the Poya holiday in place of Sunday. (Then the Observer was an evening daily) There was tremendous excitement in office about the news of a man landing on the moon.

Those were the days when there was no TV, internet or Google. Nor were there e-mail or other facilities to reach the world in a hurry. For world news we depended on the Reuters ‘ticker’ – as the machine in which reams of paper rolled out news about what was happening around the world throughout day and night was called.

The news used to first reach the Reuters office in Hospital Street, Fort or thereabout, from where the news was sent out to the newspaper offices which had subscribed to get the service. Each newspaper office had a ticker for each paper.

Observer Editor Denzil Peiris, who had a keen news sense, never left the ticker machine that evening. He was gazing at the machine surrounded by a few of us. Neville Weeraratne, who designed the magazine edition, usually got home on the previous evening only after the City Edition was ‘put to bed’. That was around midnight. So did I. That evening was special. We were going to have as many editions as possible, giving the readers the latest news on the big event.

The ticker was continuously giving the news following every step of the journey to the moon. Neville was editing the copy as we rushed it to him to have the basic layout of the first page ready to break the big news using a banner headline. Denzil was glued to the machine.

The big moment came. Denzil pulled out the copy from the machine and rushed to the sub-editors’ desk, where Neville was ready to give the finishing touches.  

There was excitement downstairs too – at the ‘stone,’ as the area where the pages were set up was called. When the edited copy was sent down, in the absence of computers, the typesetting was done on huge machines which turned out metal pieces with the lettering. Font sizes were used as marked in the copy. These were put together to fit into the columns of the page as designed by Neville.

In the meantime, the vans were ready to take the papers to the outstations. Once the Provincial Editions were ready for print, we took a breather. The ticker was still busy. News was flowing in throughout the night. We kept on updating and changing the layouts of the pages which carried the moon landing news.

In all we had eight editions of the City Edition, which reached the suburbs of Colombo. Posters announced the big news. The news dealers got additional copies of the paper. The readers were going to grab them to read the exciting news. Many would have preserved their copies.

It was also not the age of colour photographs. We had to be satisfied with black and whites pictures we got.

Our excitement was not over. We were waiting for Time and Newsweek to get a full coverage with pictures. I treasure a copy of the Newsweek of 28 July which had a black and white picture on the cover showing Armstrong stepping on the moon, with a credit to ‘Sony Corp. via NHK’. The top story under the heading ‘One Giant Leap’ started thus:

“‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,’ said Neil A. Armstrong as he became the first human to scuff the surface of the moon with his foot. At 10:50 p.m. EDT Sunday night, as perhaps one billion earth men and women watched and listened, the civilian commander of Apollo 11 stood on the 37-inch diameter landing pad of his Eagle c raft and then carefully lifted his left foot off the saucer-shaped gear and passed it into the Sea of Tranquillity. He was a ghostly white figure, moving in buoyant un-gravity on a powdery plain some 240,000 miles away – and yet as close as the TV set across the room, as real as a recurrent dream. For with him walked all men who have ever lived or who are yet to live.” ‘Life’ Special Edition with the strap heading ‘To the Moon and back’ was a superb collector’s issue. It was full of colour photographs of mankind’s two-and-a-quarter hour walk on the moon. The introduction to the edition said: “Neil Armstrong’s booted foot, pressed firmly on the lunar soil, symbolised the stunning success of man’s highest adventure – the achievement, with the first moon step on the evening of 20 July 1969 of the ambitious goal set by President John F Kennedy eight years earlier.”

‘Man on the Moon’ was the title of a publication released by United States Information Service (USIS). There were many more. And the newspapers continued to carry news and pictures in the weeks that followed. Many years later, on a visit to the Smithsonian Museum, I was thrilled to see the issue of ‘Silumina’ with the coverage of the moon landing in the reference racks.