Putting Out a Daily Paper Was Never a Linear Process

The following is a guest post by Carl Fleischhauer,  Project Coordinator, Office of Strategic Initiatives.

Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper, September 1942. Photograph by Marjory Collins

Like many others, I have been fascinated to watch the production of newspapers–as depicted in the movies like The Front Page or All the President’s Men.  To be sure, these tales were enlivened by plot elements like exposing Watergate and the give and take between the reporter Hildy Johnson and the editor Walter Burns.  But the dynamism of the stories depended upon and reflected the dynamism of the news production setting.  (By the way, both of these films are on the Library’s National Film Registry.)

Those movies, together with a few novels and television shows, blend in my memory, yielding a vision of active, independent-minded reporters gathering and writing, er, typing (!) their stories.  Looking over their shoulders stands a tough-minded editorial team who blend the local stories with material from wire services and other sources, shaping the overall package for laudable (or not-so-laudable) purposes.  In the background is the sales operation, selling space for display and classified ads.  Then there are the crusty characters and forceful labor union representatives who do the layout and operate the linotype machines and printing presses.  Everyone in the process has an eye on the clock, striving to meet deadlines for an array of editions: morning, metro, northern suburban, final, and so on.  Then the bundled papers go to the trucks, to newsstands and home delivery carriers.

It ain’t just in fiction: this lively and collaborative work process has been factually documented more than once.  For example, the 1942 photographs from a long series about the New York Times that illustrate this blog have been drawn from Library’s famous Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information documentary photo collection.  (Clicking on the image takes you back to the Library’s online presentation of the photo.  Once there, see more by clicking the “Browse neighboring items by call number” link.)

What does the newspaper production operation look like today?  We know that linotype operators disappeared with newspapers’ adoption of offset printing technology in the 1950s and 1960s.  And that the importance of newspaper classified ads (and the revenue from them) is much diminished in the era of Craigslist and eBay.  Meanwhile, we may wonder if newspaper websites and iPhone apps have replaced the daily rhythm of edition deadlines with a steady-state routine of updating.  And even as we appreciate the contribution of citizen journalists–often given voice on newspaper websites and in print editions–we fervently hope that cost-cutting does not further shrink the ranks of professional staff journalists.

Linotype operators in the composing room of the New York Times newspaper, September 1942. Photograph by Marjory Collins.

Well, all of the preceding changes are part of the newspaper scene today.  But as I read the fascinating report from a team of news-production analysts at the Center for Research Libraries, I was struck by how much of the old multiplayer, multistream dynamic is still in play.  The CRL report is built on four case studies and describes workflows that yield not only news papers (three times out of four) but also websites and “e-facsimile” editions, i.e., a PDF file (or equivalent) that looks and feels like the paper newspaper.

The report describes a three-zone workflow still centered on the production and dissemination of stories:

  • sourcing: the inputs to the process and product, an array of incoming streams
  • editing and producing the news: the assembly of the news portion of the product in a loosely centralized process
  • distributing the news: the output processes for paper and online formats, which include the automated insertion of some advertising and other content

From the CRL report: an illustrative diagram of the segment of a newspaper online delivery system that responds to queries and dynamically delivers third-party advertising content to end users.

We learn about the cast of characters in each zone.  For sourcing, there are some expected players: reporters, photographers, columnists, cartoonists, wire services, and photo agencies.  But we are also reminded of the roles played by newspaper publishers, standards organizations, advertising agencies, and ad and data servers.  Today, everyone employs digital tools but the reference to “ad servers” spotlights the electronic dimension.  In the editing and producing category, editors and designers are prominent, but the report notes the importance of some very digital actors: programmers, system designers, software producers, and system vendors.

In the third workflow zone, distributing the news, the digital players are more prominent: text and e-facsimile aggregators, search engines and news reader services, bloggers and social media platforms, indexing services, API programmers, and ad-servers (again).  I’ll let you read the report, but the diagram tells a bit of the story.  It shows us online news consumers querying and receiving “local content” (which may include local ads) from the big green cylinder that represents the digital data stored by the newspaper.  Meanwhile, the smaller tan cylinder represents “third party providers, such as advertising and analytics services [that] serve content directly  . . . to the user’s browser. These services capture information from the user’s browser, identifying preferences, geographic location(s) and transaction histories associated with the user’s IP address. This information in turn prompts an algorithm to determine what new ad content to display to the user.”  In toto, an online newspaper experience, tailored just for you!

As I read the report I was exhilarated by the spectacle–nearly as good as The Front Page–but daunted by the preservation challenge.  What version should be collected for history: the e-facsimile or the dynamic web version (or both)?  Can the web version even be harvested, given that it changes constantly and is tailored to each end user?  What ought be done to obtain the metadata, considering that the best descriptions are prepared by third-party indexing and aggregating services, who use that enhanced data to serve their own paid subscribers?  The preservation of newspapers has always been a collective effort, as evinced by the many participants in the Chronicling America resource.  Can we continue to build a coalition of research libraries to collect the “new” news in its digital form?  Stop the presses while I cross my fingers and say, “You bet!”

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