A Little Media History for streets.mn Readers

(No Exit) ScabsI recently watched an amazing 29-minute, on-line documentary film about the last day of lead type at the New York Times. It’s called “Farewell Etaoin Shrdlu” and I recommend everyone watch it.  The date is July 2, 1978 and, for around a hundred years prior to that date, this was how newspapers were put together– with molded lead “hot” type, in frames, using heavy machinery, molds, molten lead and huge numbers of employees. The New York Times layout and pre-printing operations required several floors of a large building, 140 linotype machines, and machinery for making 40lb lead plates that attached to their printing presses. When computer type arrived in the late 1970s, all this became obsolete and vast numbers of people got laid off or took early retirements. What happens in this short film was happening at newspapers all over the country.

As you watch the movie, imagine all the lead-type machines, band saws, mold making and other equipment that was now rendered obsolete. Then imagine how the factories in Ohio and elsewhere who made this machinery for a hundred years were suddenly out of business. Such is the history of automation. Using mechanical and computer technology, companies strive to streamline production processes and eliminate employees, all in an effort to save money and make profits. I’m not suggesting that eliminating lead-type was necessarily a bad thing. Lots of people got lead poisoning, lost fingers or worse from this stuff. But the late 1970s were the beginning of a contraction in the journalism industry that continues to this day.

The computer typesetting technology which replaced lead type lasted less than twenty years. In this process (explained in the movie), columns of type were assembled by early computers on pieces of photo paper. These strips and photo-stat images had sticky wax applied to them and were literally “pasted up” onto larger sheets to create newspaper and magazine page layouts. These would be scanned to make printing plates using a photo-chemical process. Newspapers still needed employees to manually paste up dozens of pages and prepare printing plates, but they needed far fewer than they’d required for lead type.

When I got into the journalism business as a cartoonist in 1991, the once “new” paste-up process was rapidly being replaced by “Desktop Publishing.” Now, one person using a primitive page-layout computer program like Aldus PageMaker could put together a thirty-six page paper that had formerly taken a staff of six or eight people to assemble. What’s more, the new desktop personal computers could do it faster, with less space, materials or equipment. The paper where I worked, The Daily Californian was slow to change over to the new desktop publishing technology, resulting in a bankruptcy reorganization, lots of layoffs and downsizing to a much smaller office.

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the internet was gradually replacing print media. Newspapers and magazines started making websites to cater to younger readers who were turning to the internet for news and didn’t want to pay for newspaper or magazine subscriptions. These websites created some new jobs but they generated much less advertising revenue than print media, and no subscription fees. Worse, click-thru advertising or Google Adwords had a negative trickle-down effect on print media. Because print media audiences and advertising response rates were much less quantifiable than internet ads, advertisers became less willing to pay large sums of money to print publications for quarter, half and full-page advertisements.

The big death knell for print media was the widespread popularity and adoption of Craigslist. In one fell swoop, Craigslist (which employs just 40 people) wiped out the classified advertising sections of newspapers and magazines nationwide. What had been a major source of print media’s revenue dried up almost overnight. This resulted in more media bankruptcies, consolidations, contractions and layoffs, including many reporters. With fewer reporters and profitable publications, coverage of news declined, especially at the local level.

Today, few people under thirty years of age get a newspaper, magazine, or cable TV subscription. They rely on social media, Netflix shows, blogs, and “free” media for their news and information. This and the advent of Google Adwords and click-thru advertising has created fertile ground for “click-bait” journalism and “fake news”. These produce increasingly sensationalized (and polarized) headlines designed to get you to click and help sell advertising. We’ve also seen the rise of politically biased fake news, produced by political parties or private interests trying to enrage you and/or suck you into a particular political party or viewpoint. Sites like Breitbart, Infowars or Occupy Democrats, serve up simplified, poorly sourced or often entirely fake news stories. In the current environment, news consumers have to be much more careful in determining the truthfulness of their news sources.

Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election was the ultimate testimonial to the decline of the mainstream (a.k.a. “paid, professional”) news media. Mainstream media’s opposition to Trump and their endorsements of his opponents, had almost no impact on the election. Trump employed Twitter, social media, fake news sites, professional news trolls and non-mainstream media platforms to get his message to the public. Contrary to the statements of professional news troll Mike Cernovich,  Noam Chomsky’s idea of “Manufacturing Consent” still exists. But now it has to be done in a much more chaotic and decentralized media environment.

Why is all this relevant to the readers of streets.mn? It’s part of our history. In the absence of good, in-depth reporting on local transportation issues, streets.mn and the national “Streetsblog” network have attempted to fill the void. Streets.mn is just one of thousands of niche news blogs that are trying to make up for declines in the journalism industry. They don’t have offices, just digital space on web servers. These sites replaced paid professional editors, writers and reporters with volunteer, citizen journalists. Even some for-profit media sites have given themselves over to using bloggers and citizen journalists for large chunks of their on-line content. Huffington Post, Washington Post online, Forbes.com and other sites have lots of content that isn’t really edited or fact checked.

Replacing paid professionals with volunteers or non-profit media is not entirely negative. Many of the folks blogging on streets.mn are professionals or activists, involved in the transportation business, working for engineering firms, local or state agencies, planning boards, universities or non-profits. So they often know more about a given transportation issue than the average professional news media reporter. Because they are unpaid, however, you tend to get the perspectives and opinions of somewhat wealthier people who have the extra leisure time and willingness to post or are being supported by their employers and non-profits. More importantly, courts and legislators have not always given bloggers and volunteer citizen journalists the same legal rights and protections as their professional predecessors.

Defamation, libel, and shield laws (which protect reporters from having to reveal sources) are mostly state based. Some states have good laws and some don’t. In a few instances courts have claimed that bloggers or volunteer citizen reporters are not “journalists”, forcing bloggers to turn over sources and making it easier to sue bloggers for libel. This in turn makes it easier for political parties and wealthy interests to overwhelm and silence citizen journalists with “SLAPP” suits– “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.” This is where someone will sue journalists, bloggers or others for defamation just to tie them down in the courts and harass them for a period of time. A former blogging friend of mine was sued for libel by a Republican legal operative named Larry Klayman. It was a frivolous, ungrounded lawsuit but it took almost four years to be thrown out. During this time, Klayman was able to force my friend and other parties to the suit to submit to depositions, subpoenas, and document requests, which sucked up huge amounts of everyone’s time and money. Attorneys had to be hired in Florida, where Klayman filed the suit, and Florida lacks anti-SLAPP suit laws, enabling Klayman to bring the case. Fortunately, my friend had been working for a newspaper that funded his legal defense. If he’d been working independently, he could have gone bankrupt paying attorneys, court costs, and other expenses.

Even though he lost, Klayman’s SLAPP suit had its desired effect. The threat of suits, frivolous copyright complaints and other hassles greatly diminished my friend’s desire and ability to continue blogging. In recent years, lawsuits have wiped out on-line publications like Gawker.

This is the “New World Media Order” that streets.mn and other blog sites operate in. Consider how far we’ve come since 1978 and where we’re going. Perhaps we need to strengthen protections for bloggers and journalists working in non-traditional media. And maybe the media should experiment with new pay-wall schemes to help more established blogs and media sites survive. In the meantime, if you like what you read, donate to streets.mn and your favorite blogs and non-profit media sources…

And consider subscribing to some of the good paid media outlets that still exist, like The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Nation, and others. Who knows how long they’ll be around?

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9 Responses to A Little Media History for streets.mn Readers

  1. D. Rather's School of Journalism April 11, 2017 at 11:18 am #

    The mainstream media has been complicit in perpetuating and peddling Fake News, as well.

    The “great” Dan Rather and his CBS team peddled fake documents to besmirch George W. Bush what was ultimately fake news, but that tactic backfired and it ultimately cost Dan Rather his job.

    • Andy Singer
      Andy Singer April 11, 2017 at 4:02 pm #

      Indeed. “Mainstream” or “paid, professional” journalism has produced plenty of bogus stories in its history. Many news outlets supported the Iraq war based on false information, or supported McCarthyism in the early 1950s, and they are guilty of countless other intentional or unintentional pedaling of lies and fake news. I’m not saying that the old news media environment was more truthful, just different. Also, I’m defining the phenomenon of fake news more narrowly to the digital media phenomenon of choosing stories that will generate clicks to sell advertising, like this– http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2016/11/23/503146770/npr-finds-the-head-of-a-covert-fake-news-operation-in-the-suburbs

  2. Ted Hathaway April 15, 2017 at 5:21 pm #

    The StarTribune’s Heritage Production facility (their printing plant) in the North Loop has free public tours. I highly recommend them. They have a linotype machine in the entryway. Bob Erickson, a retired linotype operator, gives some of the tours. The tour is fascinating, but somewhat depressing. Whether you’re in the paper warehouse, where the huge rolls of paper are unloaded from rail cars, or the room where robots move the paper rolls to the printing machines, or the enormous printing room where the paper is actually produced, there are very few people left there. Really – you are sometimes surprised even to see a human.

    I was lucky enough to have spent some time in the basement of the Strib’s former headquarters at 425 Portland before it was torn down. This was where the paper was actually printed before the construction of the Heritage Production facility. The machines were all gone and the space had been used for miscellaneous storage for some time, but the tracks were still in the floor for carting the huge wheels of paper, as were the conveyors for transporting the heavy lead printing plates. The vast, dark cavern extended out beyond the footprint of the building, reaching down and under 4th st. All filled now, and forgotten.

    It doesn’t take much to imagine that working conditions for linotype operators were pretty bad. In addition to constant exposure to lead, the machine were insulated with asbestos and the incidence of mesothelioma among linotype operators was pretty high. And then there was the constant noise…no wonder that many of the printers shown in this documentary were deaf. But these are not reasons to justify the demise of the job.

    Neil Postman observed that every technological innovation is a trade-off. Whatever improvements we adopt must inevitably result in something lost. Zeynep Tufekci (“The Machines are Coming”) has also pointed out that technological change is not some external force, morally neutral, washing over the workplace with the inevitability and inexorableness of the rising sun. It is something we choose to adopt.

    Machines do not take our jobs. It is employers who buy the machines for the express purpose of replacing employees who take our jobs. Maybe the New York Times, and other newspapers, had to make this choice to “stay competitive” or maybe they did it keep their profits up. The elegiac tone of the film notwithstanding, the narrator pointed out the miracle of progress the computers brought and suggested that the printers had all been retrained. The New York Times, who owns the rights to the film, surely didn’t want it pointed out that many other lost their jobs when the new machines replaced the old ones.

    • Rosa April 15, 2017 at 10:00 pm #

      most of the reason that so many newspaper print and layout staff were deaf is that American Deaf schools taught printing as a trade starting in the middle of the 19th century. Almost every school for the deaf had its own printing press and offered printing as a vocational track.

      When I started at the Strib in 1999 they were still offering free ASL classes for employees but as far as I know there were only a few deaf employees at that point. But I didn’t work on the production side, it might have been different.

  3. Andy Singer
    Andy Singer April 15, 2017 at 8:43 pm #

    I’ll have to go to the Heritage Production Facility. Thanks for the tip, and for your thoughts!

  4. Nicholas Moe April 18, 2017 at 9:57 pm #

    Andy, thanks for sharing that film with us. It was fascinating. If you visit Rollag, MN during the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion, held every Labor Day weekend, you can visit the newspaper building and see several of these wonderful Linotype machines in action, as well as a variety of printing presses and demonstrations of hand-set type. They actually use the machines to print a small newspaper every year for the show. Watching these complicated, often cantankerous machines never ceases to amaze me. http://rollag.com/

    • Andy Singer
      Andy Singer April 18, 2017 at 11:25 pm #

      Cool! Thanks for the tip. Might have to film that.

  5. Michael Wilson April 18, 2017 at 10:01 pm #

    Great video — thanks for providing the link. It immediately took me back to the long overnights all of us underclassmen on the staff of The Daily Dartmouth (“America’s Oldest College Newspaper”) spent in the mid-1960s in the back room of the Hanover Print Shop, where each of us in turn stood by as Sid Varney, Linotype machine operator extraordinaire, assembled the paper exactly as shown in the video — although with much less pressure and no clatter from neighboring machines.

    It was our task to pore over the proofs to search for errors. Sid’s nod of approval was high praise indeed when a second proofreading turned up no additional errors we hadn’t caught the first time round.

    Before winter descended at that northern latitude, it was a joy to leave the dark Print Shop, presses running, and step outside into the emerging light of dawn and trudge, bone-weary but escorted by birdsong, back to our dorms. Later that day we’d go over to The D’s editorial offices and with trepidation approach the mark-up stand where one of the editors had used a red grease pencil to circle all the errors we had missed and to evaluate the day’s edition in general. The editors were usually far tougher graders than any professor I ever had.

    During those long hours with Sid, the Print Shop dark except for the light hanging over the Linotype machine, I learned some of the best lessons of my college career. Bless you, Sid Varney, and bless that ancient, creaky, and beautiful Linotype machine.

    • Andy Singer
      Andy Singer April 18, 2017 at 11:30 pm #

      That’s poetry! It’s like seeing a movie in a theater versus on your phone. Publishing used to be a physical, collective, group experience of putting out a newspaper or a magazine. While I enjoy blogs and internet based media, it’s not the same experience.

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