Newspapers and musical chairs

In the lobby of the Toronto Star building, just off to the side of the security desk, there stands a linotype machine, complete with explanatory plaque and black-and-white photos. The machine is a statue erected, not to a dead politician, but to a dead technology. It says to the workers hurrying by: 'I was once important. I made a difference. But I got replaced. And then everything changed.'

In the lobby of the Toronto Star building, just off to the side of the security desk, there stands a linotype machine, complete with explanatory plaque and black-and-white photos. The machine is a statue erected, not to a dead politician, but to a dead technology. It says to the workers hurrying by: ‘I was once important. I made a difference. But I got replaced. And then everything changed.’

I joined MacLaren Advertising’s media department in the mid ’70s and part of the education process, in those days, involved tours of media institutions; after all, how could you buy and plan media if you had never seen the inside of a media factory?

I have a strong recollection of the Toronto Star tour, specifically of the linotype machines in action. They were giant black metal typewriters. Their keys were punched and lines of hot metal type emerged, which were then blocked into mirror image pages of raised lettering. They were big and noisy and they gave new meaning to the phrase ‘printed word.’

The Toronto Star had up to 50 of these machines in their composing room in the ’40s and ’50s, setting around six lines of type per minute per machine. Soon after my tour, on July 1, 1978, the last linotype machine was wheeled out, victim to new photocomposition technology.

The department devoted to composition eventually disappeared because new technology meant that journalists could set their own copy as they wrote it. I witnessed

this instantaneous process a few months ago when a newspaper reporter friend wrote a news story on his laptop on Sunday morning and e-mailed it from my home. I read the story on the front page of the National Post the next morning.

And so my tour of the Star, during my freshman year in the media business, provided the opportunity to witness the end of the hot type era and the beginning of a remarkable evolution in newspaper composition and printing technology. As it turns out, I also witnessed the beginning of a steep decline in the newspaper medium’s ability to grab and hold consumers’ attention.

In the early ’80s, over 60% of the adults in Canada read newspapers on a given day. Today, that daily impact level stands just shy of 45% (PMB 2001). That’s a lot of Canadians who have dropped their habit of reading newspapers each and every day.

Perhaps the changing demography in Canada is behind this downward trend. Or perhaps the very technology that helped to reduce newspaper costs and news copy deadlines has been employed by the radio and TV industry to provide consumers with optional channels of news delivery; alternatives such as radio station 680 CFTR, CBC Newsworld, CNN and ROBTV with their smaller digital cameras and satellite feeds and video uplinks. Because during this period of marked decline in daily reach for the newspaper medium, the TV and radio media have held constant. Daily usage of the TV medium stands at 79% and radio stands at 73% – virtually unchanged from levels in the mid-’80s.

But for all the negativity surrounding declines in newspaper readership, it is important to realize that penetration continues to grow amongst those with above-average income (55%) and those with university education (60%). With those demographics, the newspaper medium recaptures its early ’80s glory days.

The broadcast medium may have pre-empted newspaper’s role as provider of news but the title ‘best provider of knowledge and personal experience’ still belongs to the newspaper. For those Canadians who value important, well-written thoughts, there is no alternative to the newspaper medium.

On most news days the distinction between ‘TV news’ and ‘newspaper knowledge’ can be subtle. TSN shows me the baseball game while Stephen Brunt at the Globe and Mail explains how the business of sports has changed for good.

But when the news is big, as it was at

8:45 a.m. EST on Sept. 11, the distinction becomes crystal clear. Throughout that morning, TV viewers watched the news actually happen. But by the morning of Sept. 12, TV viewing levels were heading back to normal and the newspaper medium assumed coverage supremacy. The headlines were big and black.

The press was on war footing and the newspaper journalists – Blatchford, Wente, Gray, Brown, Francis – produced some of their best stuff. One must read what these people write in order to understand and appreciate the true implications of big news.

This is a strange historical irony indeed. A technology revolution threw linotype operators out on the street and allowed the newspaper medium to reduce news turnaround time. But then broadcasters used this same technology to outperform the newspapers on the news gathering front. In response, the newspaper medium has rediscovered a decidedly low-tech but unique asset: the journalist’s pen.

And now the newspaper medium has reconfirmed a clear and direct channel of communication to those Canadians who lead literate lifestyles.

In spite of its decline – perhaps because of its decline – the newspaper medium now holds a lofty position in Canadian society. The linotype machine deserves a statue.

Rob Young (ryoung@hypn.com) is founding partner and SVP, planning and research, at Toronto-based media planning and buying operation Harrison, Young, Pesonen and Newell.