The Perils Of Pagination / 16 октября 2007 г.

Pagination wasn’t the quick and easy revolution we all hoped for, says Tony Sutton. The growing pains are not yet over for many newspapers.

Copyright © News Design Associates Inc.

Way back in the good old days of hot-metal typesetting, the production of newspaper pages presented few problems for journalists. They didn’t do it. Their task was to write the stuff, inspiration and creativity finely-tuned by a few swigs from the ever-present bottle in the bottom drawer.

Dropped onto the editors’ desk, the neatly-typed copy would rapidly degenerate into barely-intelligible scrawl before being transferred, together with a roughly-scratched layout, along a pneumatic tube into the bowels of the building. There, a gang of sweaty, hamfisted artisans would miraculously turn it into a newspaper. And that, more or less, was that — give or take an expletive or two along the way.

Then things changed. Newspaper production lurched forward a gear or two, sharply propelled by the cold-type revolution of the ’60s.

An era ended. The gangs of two-fingered typesetters along with their thuggish leatheraproned compositor-cum-psychopath pals were either replaced by, or transformed into, Menin- White-Shirts-and-Ties. The equipment changed just as dramatically. The noble Linotypes — solid, mechanical contraptions that responded to a well-wielded hammer or a splash of carelessly-sprayed oil, — were sent to the great dinosaur graveyard and replaced with a succession of increasingly delicate and expensive contraptions. Unfailingly, these needed the attention of an outof- town technician whenever the worst possible deadline loomed.

Changes to the workplace were just as dramatic. Along with the introduction of members of the other sex (whose only previous appearance had been as decoration to hide the ink-stains on the walls), the production department began to look suspiciously like an office: carpets on the floor, mugs of steaming coffee on neat, white-topped desks and the gentle breeze of political correctness floating through the air.

Out with the old, in with the new? Almost, but not quite. Union contracts meant that many of the hairy-fisted Linotype operators remained on the job, laughingly described as retrained, brandishing vicious scalpels in their daily war with a new breed of artsy-fartsy design types, who made their lives increasingly difficult by expecting them to strip — “neatly, please” — little pieces of type onto layout boards.

The equipment? The kindest thing you could say about the Justowriters, Compugraphics, Phototypositors and their brethren was that the technology was intermediate — a bridge between the bad old ways and the brave new world that we knew was just around the corner.

Did it work? Well, sort of.

An international magazine at which I was London production editor decided to save cash (how many times have you heard that hoary old chestnut?) and loosen the pressure of deadlines by making pages in our Fleet Street offices instead of sending them to typesetters based several hundred miles out of town in the West Country.

“No sweat,” declared a sharp-suited salesman, tongue loosened by several large glasses of wine, as he passed a quotation for a couple of filmsetters across a lunch table, adding the fatal rider that we’d “need to buy a back-up system … to be used when the main one goes down.” He got the hangover, but not the deal.

Then there was the new Sunday newspaper that installed a batch of brand-new digital imagesetters that overheated on their first deadline trial and had to be replaced by lesssophisticated hardware.

Roadkill on the road to hell …

And so the revolution evolved over another decade, through a progression of increasingly refined and more expensive solutions to the age-old (and previously quite simple) dilemma of getting ink onto paper as quickly, efficiently and — did I already mention this? — as cheaply as possible.

Finally, God gave us the Mac and desktop publishing programs. And all production journalists on the planet rejoiced, knowing full well that the future had finally arrived. Little did they know that, for the mainstream press at least, the future was still a murky, elusive, shadow.

First, the good news: Pagination technology worked.

I sat in my home studio in South Africa in 1987 and, like journalist colleagues around the world, produced magazine pages direct to film (aided and abetted by a service bureau with a large, costly Hell drum scanner).

The bad news? It didn’t work for newspapers!

Whenever I traveled to the big dailies for which I consulted, it became apparent that technology had hit a brick wall — Atex front-ends, lots of sticky bits of paper in the middle and gangs of Exacto-wielding heavies protecting their hard-won backshop territory (“Try to change this page and I’ll cut off your fingers!”).

As I packed my bags at the beginning of the ’90s and headed for the cold wastes of Toronto to redesign The Globe and Mail, I told myself things would be different. I knew the Globe’s printing press was a neanderthal scrapheap from the age of hot metal, but the newspaper was a pioneer in satellite technology and pagination. Right?

Well, half right.

The satellite worked like a dream, but the Harris pagination system, linked to the ubiquitous Atex front-end, was slow, cumbersome, complicated and prone to crash at the sniff of a deadline. I spent five months designing new pages on a Mac, then watched in head-scratching bewilderment as my redesign accomplice and Globe assistant managing editor Earle Gill transferred everything line-by-agonizing-line into the Harris. (Earle must have doing something right; he’s now the Globe’s executive editor.)

The Globe project was followed by a host of others at smaller dailies across North America. The story was unchanged: Designing pages on a Mac was hassle-free. Trying to get similar-looking effects on production systems that spanned several levels of technology, each linked by the electronic version of chewing gum and sticky tape, was not.

Pagination was a bad joke.

Catch 22 took on a whole new significance as I watched an Ohio editor try to put a vertical rule between two columns of type on the screen of his terminal. In full-size mode, he could see the rule — but couldn’t move it. In small-page mode, he could move the rule but could hardly see it. At least the publisher was happy: “We’re saving cash because we’ve got rid of the backshop … ”

That attitude contributed significantly to the problem, as I discovered while chatting idly to a vendor’s rep elsewhere in Middle America. “Yes, our machines are crap,” was the gist of his argument, “but only because customers won’t pay for anything better. Editorial quality is just an incidental, all the publishers care about is an improved bottom line. They want cheap; we give ’em cheap!”

Unchecked, the rot continued.

I will not forget the newspaper that I almost put out of commission by installing Adobe Type Manager into the Quark terminal at which I was attempting to make typographical adjustments. Pandemonium followed several minutes later when the whole pagination system crashed. ATM, it seemed, clashed with the code in the translation tables.

Then there was the large metro making millions of dollars profit each year that had a pagination system so complex and unnerving that some technologically challenged editors cowered in terror when asked to use it.

And I recall one newspaper that moved to a new “palace,” giving its journalists spacious work areas, sparkling-clean desks and new carpets. It replaced the tired and shagged-out printing press with a big blue Goss that filled the basement. Clunky Crossfield pagination terminals were replaced by PCs running QuarkXPress.

Perfect? Nearly, but not quite. Someone on another continent was struggling to write translation tables for a frontend system that did not have — and never would have — the capability to connect with Quark. It was business as usual for more than a year.

Enough, already. You’ve heard the stories. It’s time to move on. There’s another revolution in the air. And, as the daily print media reacts to threats from a new generation of Internet-centered technology, the bean counters are finally seeing the light. Cutting corners, they have discovered, may not be the best way of saving cash, and you won’t get a better editorial product by providing your editors with inadequate tools with which to work. So, many newspapers are starting to enjoy the fruits of the Quark revolution: Front-end systems (almost) seamlessly integrated with Mac-based pagination terminals that are fast, simple and fun to operate.

That’s the upside. Unfortunately, the costcutting mentality still reigns at too many locations throughout the industry. Quark- XPress is so easy to use, say those men in dark blue suits, that they can get rid of the backshop crew and load all the production work onto the hard-working editors: “Just think of all that lovely money we can save!”

It’s ironic that the ultimate price these managers paid for effective pagination was to turn editors into production staff. They didn’t get rid of the Linotype operators, they got rid of the editors.

The result? Bad-looking but well-edited newspapers have been transformed into good-looking but vacuous rags.

But, by God, they’re saving money!

Tony Sutton is president of News Design Associates, a newspaper design and editorial consultancy based in Georgetown, Ontario, Canada. He is the author of Creative Newspaper Design and Creative Magazine and Newsletter design.

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