When I first became affiliated with the Independent Herald by writing a weekly outdoors column — a lifetime ago at the tender age of 19 — the newspaper was still very much in the throes of the “paste-up” era. Inside the IH office at the bottom of the Four Lane, there was a room dedicated to the design of the newspaper pages each week, another room set aside as a dark room for developing film. School teachers would sometimes bring their classes to the newspaper office on field trips so students could observe the process of putting together the newspaper.
Some grizzled old veterans of the newspaper industry might bemoan the technological advances that have followed. Steve Oden, whose column appears in this space every other week, might be one of them. But I’m not.
This week’s Independent Herald was composed on St. George Island off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico — with the sounds of the surf out the front door, dolphins swimming in the bay out the back door, and the smell of sea salt in the air.
St. George Island is more than 600 miles from Oneida, but the technology of our modern era makes it just as easy to publish a newspaper about Oneida from afar as in our Four Lane office back home.
The technological evolution of the print industry was well underway by the time my byline first appeared in the paper, in 1999. The Linotype machines had long since been tossed out the door, and the actual composition had already moved to Mac computers.
But there was still the dreadful paste-up process — which the afore-mentioned old-timers look back on with strong nostalgia but which I loathed simply because I cut my teeth in the print industry in a different era. Each story, or photo and cutline, had to be printed off, trimmed, waxed, and placed on the board. If a story was too long to fit on the page and needed to jump to a separate page, the task become even more tedious. A late-breaking story that required the front page to be broken down and the lead story replaced tacked hours onto the work day.
Paul Roy, who founded the Independent Herald in 1976 and served as its publisher until shortly before his death in 2015, spent many long days and nights — sometimes with help, sometimes without it — in that paste-up room, arduously going about the task of designing the newspaper.
While I was writing an outdoors column and covering high school football for the Independent Herald, I was able to really spread my wings as a young journalist at the Livingston Enterprise and Jackson County Sentinel in Middle Tennessee, where I had the privilege of working for a young publisher who was on the cutting edge of newspaper technology. He was a terrible boss, but a very adept newspaperman. There, I learned the art of the delightful new digital process termed pagination — layout automation of newspapers. And, when I was given the opportunity to come back home for good in 2003, I came armed with the knowledge I had accumulated out west.
Within weeks, the paste-up boards had come down and the former layout room was converted into office space. Late nights became late evenings and, eventually, late afternoons. The dark room had already been converted, thanks first to the one-hour commercial print development capabilities that had arrived, then later to the arrival of the first digital SLR cameras.
Whereas the newspaper used to take days to lay out, it could theoretically be done in a matter of hours with enough people on the job. And instead of the newspaper’s driver having to stop by the office in the wee hours of day to pick up the paste-up sheets and hand-deliver them to the press, digital copies of the pages had already been delivered electronically and the finished product awaited him when he arrived at the printing plant at sunrise.
It was a new era for newspapers. Color was not an impossibility before pagination, but it was quite a bit more trouble than it was deemed to be worth, so it was limited primarily to spot color when advertisers requested it. Post-pagination, though, the Independent Herald was able to start churning out full-color front pages and section fronts. It was the first time a newspaper in Scott County had printed in color on a regular basis.
When I’m sitting on a tropical island with my toes in my sand and a computer in my lap, I’m reminded of those simpler — yet more complicated — times of the not-so-distant past. Unfortunately, technology hasn’t invented a way for newspapermen to actually take vacations that involve real breaks from work (at least not at small papers like ours, where everyone wears multiple hats), but it has at least made it possible to get away. Production of the newspaper is no longer tied to a physical office. The work that used to require two separate rooms to complete is now contained within my 13-inch MacBook Pro. And newspaper pages can be designed just as efficiently on St. George Island in the Gulf of Mexico as they can be at 19391 Alberta Street in Oneida.
This new technology isn’t all good, of course. It’s opened the door for the corporate giants of the industry to downsize and cut jobs. It’s not uncommon for newspapers to outsource production to remote sites, a lament I commonly hear from my colleagues in the corporate world.
But if it makes my life easier, I’m for it. And on laid-back St. George Island, life is easy. For more than a decade in the newspaper business, I never took a real vacation. We’d rush away somewhere close (like Pigeon Forge) for a few days after one week’s edition went to press, then rush back in time to start working on the next week’s edition, but that was the extent of it. I’m pretty sure Paul Roy and his wife, Debbie, didn’t take a real vacation for almost 40 years in the business. And now, here I am, on St. George Island, putting together news and ads about Scott County, Tenn.
God bless technology.