Chips for a change

Posted on October 2, 2010


PERSONAL/HISTORICAL OVERVIEW: For most of my working life I have been involved with the print media. I remain in this position although a proportion of what I now write is transferred into digital formats and may never appear on the printed page. But I still work primarily through the medium of newspapers and magazines. In other words, traditional print formats.

And the manner in which these are produced and the way in which I and others like me, work, has altered dramatically over the past 30 years in particular. In a relatively short space of time, massive changes have been wrought in an industry that had remained little changed for a century and more. These changes have also had quite profound social as well as organisational effects.

At the root of this change is a single technical innovation: the micro chip. Tiny slivers of silicon, each bearing complex integrated circuits, today affect the lives of almost everyone on the planet. From modern cars to mobile telephones, computers and supermarket checkouts to televisions, the chip is everywhere, making for more efficient, faster and cheaper communication, retailing and stock control and facilitating more consistent and lower-cost production of almost everything we need or are persuaded to think we need.

It radically transformed a print media industry that had, with some important technical improvements in the 19th Century, continued to produce in much the same way as when William Caxton brought then modern Gutenberg printing technology to Britain in the latter part of the 15th Century.

Possibly the single major change prior to the arrival of the chip and its associated technological developments came in 1886 with the invention of the Linotype machine. This allowed lines of justified (lined up on the right margin) type (text), made up out of a lead alloy) to be set by a single operator. Thirty years ago, on British national newspapers, lines of type were still set in this way in metal “galleys” (trays) before being locked into pages on a “stone” which, by the 20th Century was a steel table. Newspapers were printed on another 19th Century, innovation, the rotary press which enabled the high speed printing of multiple pages on rolls of paper.

This system of production gave rise to an organisational hierarchy of skills: journalists wrote their “stories” on paper which was passed to editors and sub-editors to be checked, edited and “marked up” with instructions for typesetters to set into metal type. Proof prints were then taken of the galleys of metal type and passed on to proof readers to compare the edited paper with the metal type “proof”. From there, after corrections had been made, the type went to the stone to be composed into pages by compositors before going to the stereo department for cylindrical impressions (“plates”) to be made to fit onto the rollers of the press. Seven specific skills were therefore needed. However, this was still, essentially, the same technology that Caxton brought to London.

UNEVEN DIFFUSION: Computerised typesetting and editing made the Linotype and the process of assembling lead type on a “stone” obsolete and made proof reading departments redundant (especially with the advent of spell check programs). For a brief period, before the development of programs allowing for pages to be designed (“made up”) on screen, compositors, wielding stencil knives, pasted individual items, printed on glued photographic paper onto pages before that task too became redundant.

Much of this new technology was available the end of the 1960s and was adopted in a very uneven manner in different countries over the following 20 years. The fact that there was no common pattern to the spread or diffusion of the technology seems to have had little to do with the need to recapitalise since the savings offered by the new technology meant that such capital expenditure could relatively quickly be recouped.; Instead, the pace and extent of this technological change seems to have been determined by the dominant working cultures into which it was introduced.

For example, elements of computerised technology were introduced to the Times of Zambia in 1969. More advanced systems were in place in New Zealand’s Suburban Newspapers group in the early Seventies while, as late as 1982, the sole change in Britain’s Associated Newspapers (Daily Mail etc) was the colour scheme on the walls of the editorial department. All the major newspaper and magazine groups still used “old” as opposed to “new” technology.

In contrast with countries such as Zambia and New Zealand (and many others), Britain, in print media terms, was technologically backward 25 years ago And when change finally came, it was in direct contrast to the peaceful and broadly welcomed manner seen in Zambia and New Zealand.

The first major — and ultimately successful — attempt to introduce computerised newspaper production to national newspapers in Britain was in 1984 by News International (The Times, Sunday Times) at the Wapping, London premises where the titles are still published today. The move triggered fierce opposition, a major strike and numerous clashes between opponents of “Fortress Wapping” which was surrounded by a steel paling fence and coils of razor wire.

DIFFERING CULTURES. While the work carried out was similar, the working cultures in the print media in the three countries mentioned was different.

1. Zambia: the majority of the skilled staff were expatriates, working on two-year contracts; they welcomed learning new skills which might make them more marketable when they moved on.

2. New Zealand: Until the 1980s, the country faced a situation of over employment, with, as a consequence, an extremely high degree of labour mobility and wage rates that were fairly equal across the board. With plenty of work available at the time, the loss of some skills caused very little concern.

3. Britain: The British print industry was developed by craftsmen who, like other skilled workers of the time, formed themselves into guilds to preserve the “secrets” of their trade. Out of these guilds developed the modern trade unions as the print media expanded and ownership of bigger, more efficient and expensive machinery fell into fewer hands. Although there was an element of Ludditism in the resistance to the change to the electronic age, most of the trade union opposition concerned jobs, retraining and the manner in which the change would be introduced.

Such negotiation, let alone any agreement on the preservation of jobs (even for limited periods) or the retraining of print workers made redundant, would be a cost to the newspaper owners, one that owners in Zambia and New Zealand did not have to face. With the new technology it was possible to produce newspapers with an almost skeleton staff, provided a number of journalists (whose jobs did not appear threatened) and the operators of the presses (whose jobs also seemed secure) would co-operate.

Financial inducements were offered. These made these two jobs marginally more expensive, but this additional cost was more than covered by the loss of five former tasks in the jobs hierarchy.

LOOKING AHEAD: Even at the time of Wapping — and before — there were concerns expressed among some journalists that the development and expansion of not only production technology, but also the internet, could impact adversely on wages and conditions of work as well as on the sort of content contained in the print and other public media.

The technology gave media owners the opportunity to free up expensive office space by offering journalists and even production (editing, page make up) staff to work from home or from less expensive satellite offices. This fragmented the former work unit, with many workers seldom coming into contact with their peers. This has apparently facilitated the spread of individual and often short-term contracts of employment.

The editing function in such a situation is often more narrowly focussed and less subject to constraints by the initial providers of material for publication.  The chip has been instrumental in this change and it is one that cannot be reversed.

* Originally published 10/2006

Posted in: Archive - 2006