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PART III: Printing & Distribution
News according to the new technology

By Nick Russel 


Printing. While the typesetting technology has settled down fairly well (the only major change we can expect in the next short while is full-page production, virtually eliminating paste-up), the plate-making and pressroom stages remain in flux.

Laser plate-making and offset presses or litho-style adaptations are certainly improving and speeding the product, but these—and actual distribution—remain the real bottle-necks in newspaper production.

The magic words may be Digitizing, Gravure and Facsimile.

Digitizing is already being used for (Is it Fifth Generation?) typesetting; several companies are on the edge of producing equipment which can jump directly from computer to plate, including four-color separations.

Gravure press manufacturers seem to have finally solved the ancient problems of speed and cost, so some experts are predicting gravure-printed newspapers within five years. The sumptuous color possible with gravure will answer the fierce pressure from advertisers for better newspaper color.

But it's Facsimile that could have the greatest impact on the newsroom.

Fax—the ability to transmit whole pages from a production area to a pressroom elsewhere—has been around for years. But the scanning process has been awkward and slow, and only in the last two or three years has it really become viable for the press.

Today the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor are the best-known examples of this process. The WSJ now is produced simultaneously in a dozen places round the continent.

(The Journal may look dull, but it has the largest daily circulation in the U.S. Its 1.6-million overtook the New York Daily News last fall.)

This fall, the flexibility of fax is being carried to its logical conclusion by the International Herald Tribune for "global" distribution: simultaneous printing in Paris, London, Zurich and Hong Kong.

Several dozen other papers round the world are now using facsimile transmission, scanning now is down to one or two minutes per page.

Fax is useful for several reasons: It leapfrogs traffic snarls created by clogged downtown areas or bad weather; it permits distribution to awkward or isolated areas if there's a press available; and it permits increasing regionalisation of newspaper editions, particularly useful as dailies pursue readers fleeing to the suburbs. (A Chicago Tribune executive predicted recently that by the year 2000 two thirds of all Americans will live outside but close to city limits. The Suburban Trib, a supplement to the parent paper, now appears in 35 separate editions.)

The Globe and Mail is the first Canadian newspaper to make significant use of this technology, transmitting to Montreal and Calgary. The Calgary edition is hoped to increase western G&M sales by 20,000 to 25,000 a day. It will be relatively easy to add other printing plants—even Yellowknife— later.

So eventually Canada may really have a "national" newspaper.

At the same time, Canada's cheekiest tabloid could escape its Torontocentricity with regional editions. And why should Canada's biggest daily be far behind? Similarly, papers like the Vancouver Sun and Winnipeg Free Press could circulate much more effectively in areas they have trouble reaching, using facsimile via phone lines or satellite.

Distribution. Scoffers will say that the large dailies—such as the Star and Vancouver Sun—could never go to facsimile because of the large number of pages.

But will papers remain so fat—so obese, some might say—in the future?

There are indications that papers have to shrink. In the short term, the newsprint crisis seems to be over. But the world supply of paper in the long run cannot possibly keep pace with the steadily increasing demand.

What happens, for instance, if the Chinese (all 800 millions?) gradually become newspaper readers? What happens if the price of newsprint continues its staggering spiral? (I haven't got the figures in front of me, but it must have quadrupled in the last decade.)

Worried New England publishers, for instance, last fall drew up a list of ways of saving newsprint. They included:

  • Prepare a list of optional features that may be eliminated when ads are tight;
  • Encourage tight writing and editing;
  • Reduce heads, subheads, kickers and other typographical devices;
  • Cut out-of-area sports and box scores;
  • Eliminate op. ed. pages on tight days and the editorial page on Saturdays;
  • Consider running ads on front page, editorial page and any other clear pages

There was more, much more. The impact, direct and indirect, on the newsroom is obvious.

"Futurist" J. Christopher Burns, vice-president of planning for The Washington Post, sees some major changes coming. An American publishers' magazine,  presstime (yes, lower case), quotes him as predicting that within 20 years the Post will have shrunk to 48 pages, while doubling in price. At the same time, the newshole will have increased as a percentage from 35 per cent to 50 per cent, and the paper will become the carrier for perhaps a dozen inserted publications with a week's shelf-life.

If the price of newsprint doesn't clobber the press, the price of energy—particularly gas for distribution—may do so, and failing that, sheer information overload:

"We may have to begin to be more respectful of the finite limits on our reader's ability to absorb so much news," says Burns.

It has been estimated that the average paper only publishes 10 per cent of the material available to it, and the average reader only looks at 10 per cent of that. For how long can a 99 per cent wastage be tolerated?

One solution is the customized paper. In a sense this is already happening as papers dig deeply into demographics and psychographics and try to "target" sections, magazines or whole editions to specific audiences.

The blue-sky forecasters see the day when every paper on one street may be different, but that's a long way off and still strictly theoretical. The probable technology would involve "ink jet" printing, where a computer controls the press, "spitting" ink to make images, instantly changeable, copy to copy. But Graeme Minto, probably Britain's top expert on this process, told me it's "most unlikely" ever to be applied to newspaper production.

How about home printing, with a little black box spitting out the pages?

The Japanese have been experimenting with it for years, but for several reasons it still doesn't seem to be commercially practical.

Another alternative is a.printer hooked to a videotex TV terminal. This way, the user calls up the pages he's interested in (say CFL results) and presses the PRINT button. Manufacturers such as Siemens in Germany already have printers on the market that can reproduce images shown on a videotex screen—Including graphics and original colors.

These home printers may well be widespread when videotex and home computer terminals catch on. At that point, the journalists working for videotex newsrooms will have, to be even more conscious of graphics and color, almost akin to a magazine art editor.

What does all this mean to the average reporter?

Perhaps a softening of the lines between print and electronic journalism, with much cross ownership (papers running videotex services, for instance) and cross-referencing (so a videotex list of sports results might end with "For the full story, see the Morning Blat, page 19.") and perhaps more lateral movement of journalists from one medium to another.

Perhaps, too, there will be increased use of facsimile transmission, letting some journalists write for a much wider geographical audience, while increased occurrence of demographic editions will call for some writers to cater to highly-defined audiences.

Perhaps papers will shrink in size, but will become carriers for myriads of other publications (for instance, the Louisville, Ky., dailies deliver four different editions of Time magazine).

Perhaps—given neat little portable VDTs which can access the office computer from anywhere by radio-phone—reporters will at last have much more freedom of movement, access to resources, and improve deadlines.

And what about that job as editor of a daily newspaper on an oil rig?

A decade ago the London Daily Telegdph proved it was possible to produce a remote edition every day on board the Queen Elizabeth 2 liner, anywhere in the world. Even with the primitive technology then available—Telegraph people told me—it was proved that such a remote paper was totally possible, on tankers, oil rigs or DEW-line bases using the small, cheap litho presses now available. Such technology could—surely—be applied in many Canadian communities.


Published in Sources Winter 1980/81 

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