Another one bites the dust

I should be used to it by now, but I’m not. Another well-known print publication, Newsweek, will end its 80 years of print production on December 31. It’s not an end, says editor-in-chief Tina Brown; it’s a “transition” to an all-digital format that began with the establishment of The Daily Beast four years. She can call it what she wants, but the print industry is dying. Newsweek is not the first publication to go belly up from a loss of advertising income, and it certainly won’t be the last.

It’s not that I was a great fan of Newsweek — certainly no more than many other magazines and newspapers. It’s that I have been and always will be a great fan of the printing and publishing process. From the invention of movable type, to the Linotype machine, to computerized typesetting, it’s always fascinated me. Words and ideas onto printing presses onto paper, mass produced and distributed.

Have you ever been in the press room of a large metro newspaper, felt the rumble and heard the roar, and watched as giant rolls of clean newsprint spool onto the press, across the platens, through trimmers and folders, up, down and around the cavernous three-stories-high room on speeding conveyor belts to fly off the far end into neat stacks of completely finished and precisely folded newspapers? I can’t imagine watching that and not being utterly fascinated.

And that’s only the last step in a long process. The content has to prepared before those presses can roll. Hours of the best creative work from many, many people. Selling and creating advertising. Researching, writing, and editing the stories. Shooting and compiling the photographs. Designing and laying out each page, each issue. Innumerable decisions to be made at every step and all finally coming together on the presses.

My favorite quotation about the business came from Newsweek many years ago:

Publishing is a manufacturing process with an absurd number of variables.

It helped to remind me that no, I wasn’t crazy; it really was an impossibly crazy business.

Today is not a happy day for those of us who’ve worked in print. Another little piece of an eroding industry is being washed out to sea. It seems with every tide, another publication disappears. Of course the capabilities and opportunities offered by digital media are exciting. Who wouldn’t be delighted to give up a typewriter and embrace computerized word processing, for example.

So no, I’m not anti-progress. I’m not anti-digital. The Digital Age is amazing, and we’ve only begun to tap its potential. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

But today, just for today, I can’t help being very, very … sad.



Categories: Computers, Media

16 replies

  1. I’m sad about this to PT, even though I haven’t read much printed medium in the last few years. Digital is superior in so many ways, but it’s still hard to watch a medium going away that was, at times, like my only friend when I was growing up.

  2. Heard about this just a bit ago. It is rather sad.
    You gave a pretty good description of the print/publishing process – it’s exciting, frantic, and crazy (ADHA/hyperactivity is a plus here) and so satisfying after all that work to hold print in your hand.
    Digital is great, but there are some experiences that we will be poorer for (the ink smell – and knowing the potential/purposes/differences of paper qualities, styles, and the noise! just the feel of a “good” publication vs farmer’s almanac)
    Can’t really say print or digital is superior – they are so different. May evolve for different purposes with digital being the most ordinary?

    • You mentioned something I neglected — the intense satisfaction at the end of the month when you hold in your hand the first copies — literally hot off the press. No matter what your part in the process, the reward is the finished product and knowing you are a part of it. I will always be able to look back at my back issues and know I picked that color, I chose that design, I wrote that story … (along with a healthy, humbling dose of “Eww, why did I do that!?”)

      Perhaps as print declines, the old books and other printed pieces that we have will increase in value to the point of being collectible and even fine art. Maybe, like other artisanal products, printing will become a highly valued, niche industry, supported and loved by a small but intensely loyal group of connoisseurs determined to never let it die. Print will be not for the masses but art for collectors and patrons. Maybe someday an actual printed copy of the latest digital bestseller will be as highly sought after as a signed first edition of A Tale of Two Cities would be today.

  3. My ex-husband was Circulation Director for out city newspaper (that’s the job that brought us out here). And I went in once to see the printing going on. It is amazing, absolutely incredible. The feel (slight vibration), the sound, the smells. A certain excitement comes with it. But, like the old-old machines where the letters were all changed by hand, it’s time to move on in technology. The more this happens, the less paper and need for trees. Even bills can come electronically now. I have mine set up so it is entirely electronic. No paper arrives in my box anymore.

    I don’t read paper much. Predominantly when I fly, which isn’t that often. I thought, well, what about people who fly? Newsweek is one I often by at the airport. Then it occurred to me that iPads and tablets have resolved that. In fact, that makes it easier to travel. Instead of books and magazines taking up room in travel bags, it’s all nice and neat and a memory card.

    I often wonder if city newspapers will do this eventually. That I rather hope it doesn’t. There’s something about waking up in the morning with a cup of coffee and a newspaper spread out in front of you. The computer just isn’t quite the same.

    • Pressrooms are something else, aren’t they? Oh, and I forgot the breeze. All that paper flying around moves a lot of air.

      I get all my bills electronically now. I pretty much had to; they were getting lost in all the bushels of junk mail! And whatever paper I saved over the last few years has been cancelled out by all the political junk job printers’ output this year.

      When I was working, I always started my days with coffee and the paper. Eventually, though, when the unread papers started piling up faster than I read them, I decided to give them up. I still start with coffee and digital news, but you’re so right; it’s not the same.

  4. I am reminded by this post of the TV series “Lou Grant” wherein Ed Asner played a newspaper editor. The series ran from 1977 to 1982, winning 13 Emmy Awards in the process, including Outstanding Drama Series. The episodes featured clever, intelligent writing, and I still remember the standard lead-in which pictured everyone involved doing their jobs, reporters, editors, publishers, press-men, carriers. The final result, a rolled-up paper being tossed onto a porch. Then a woman comes out, opens the paper, takes a section out of the middle – and puts it in the bottom of her bird cage! Hilarious!

    The Lou Grant episodes often dealt with moral and professional dilemmas in the publishing business and I found the publisher’s role especially interesting. The actress Nancy Marchand played that role perfectly, intelligent, world-wise, pragmatic, but fundamentally human. Today’s TV could use more of that, and sadly I’m not seeing any of it on the horizon.

    As for the trend to digital, I don’t see it as all that bad. What’s changing is the time factor – digital gets the news out almost immediately, so there is less room, and less need, for peripheral reporting. Mainly high quality stuff gets through to the consumer, at least for the national and international scenes. Let’s hope that journalistic quality maintains its standards through all these changes.

    • I still occasionally miss having some old newspapers around. What will I spread on the garage floor the next time I want to spray paint a small item? What do I use to stuff extra space in a box I need to ship? I definitely do NOT miss slip-sliding out to the curb (kids don’t throw papers on the porch anymore; adults drive by and drop them out the window) to fish it out of the melting snow in the gutter so I can spend the next hour peeling the soggy pages apart and either spreading them all over the kitchen to dry or trying to speed the process in the microwave.

      Reality TV is much cheaper than good comedy or drama writing, so our great TV wasteland continues to grow. There’s little on anymore that I really consider “must watch.” At the moment it’s “The Good Wife” and “Last Resort”; the latter, unfortunately, is scheduled opposite my other favorite, “The Big Bang Theory,” which I am foregoing as a result.

      I also see a growing lack of professionalism in journalism. Makes me wonder what outlets I’ll trust for responsible reporting a decade from now (assuming I’m still here and there are any good, responsible journalists still out there).

  5. Ah, yes, the memories. Back in the day I knew how to pick the type out of a California job case and create a headline in the “stick.” Weekly newspaper editors sometimes acquired those skills in addition to producing most of the stories and photos. Now, I read my daily paper’s e-edition five days a week and only get copies to line the bird cage or blanket the garage floor on Thursday and Sunday.

    Last year, I was on a committee with a journalism professor. He told us the trend is to teach “advocacy journalism.” A former reporter and columnist for the Ann Arbor Times and I were baffled about how that replaces objectivity in news columns and clearly labeled opinion elsewhere. He never quite cleared that up. I shudder at what lies ahead.

    • Sounds like when you were in the backshop setting those heads, I was probably in the ad dept. clipping illustrations from giant books of clip art and taping them into dummies. Ugh. How inelegant. Used a lot of tape in those days.

      “Advocacy journalism.” There’s a place for that, as you noted — on the op-ed pages. The fact that we find it everywhere passing as objective reporting is one reason I’m glad to be retired. It goes against everything I was taught.

“I cannot be an optimist but I am a prisoner of hope.” ~ Cornel West

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