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Steve Jobs brought a sea change to publishing
Written by Kerry Ashmore
Posted  10/19/2011
The death of Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs defines an era for community newspapers. His Macintosh is the industry standard for graphic production, including newspapers and pre-press printing applications of all sorts. The combination of greater efficiency and lower costs (compared with pre-Macintosh technology) has meant greater profits for profitable papers, and simple survival for a growing number of newspapers, large and small, that find themselves operating "on the edge."

In retrospect, the Macintosh looked like anything but a game changer when it hit the market in early 1984. Its innovative graphic capabilities were fine and fun for interpersonal communication among computer enthusiasts, but Macs were totally inadequate for newspaper and business management purposes. And who had the third hand one would need to handle that "mouse" thing?

In December of 1985, your publishers invested $50,000 in the previous generation of typesetting equipment, from a company called Compugraphic, having not a clue that the amazingly-successful Apple folks would make it obsolete within our lifetimes, let alone well within a decade.

While it was clearly the lead player, Apple was not alone in creating the digital revolution for community newspapers. Others had figured out that desktop publishing was coming, and worked on ways to create high-quality and inexpensive "outputs" for a growing list of text-manipulating programs. A number of companies worked to make digital photography acceptable and affordable. And Adobe was perfecting its PDF (portable document format) product, which allowed people to combine text and images into a single computer file that could be read and manipulated using free or inexpensive software, on all of the popular software "platforms."

By the early 1990s, the handwriting—or, should we say, the digital imaging—was on the wall. Our world as we knew it—hot melted wax rolled onto the back of typeset copy that was stuck onto light-blue-lined poster boards, light blue felt-tip pens to write "invisible" notes for the printer, late-night trips to hand carry those poster boards to that printer, whose giant cameras would prepare the photographic negatives that would etch the metal plates that would grab the ink and press it to the paper we would deliver to your door—was ending.

In its place would come a new world, in which our words and images—from across the desk or across the planet—are fed into our computer. We manipulate them on our computer screens, bust up the finished product into ones and zeroes, send them over wires and satellites to that same printer, who puts them back together and into a machine that etches those metal plates so that they’ll grab the ink and...well, you know the rest.

The new world was not created overnight, and it wasn’t always smooth sailing from point to point. The early Macintosh-based desktop publishing programs put typesetting—or, perhaps more accurately, the appearance of typesetting—into the hands of people who didn’t know the first thing about...well, typesetting. The programs made it fairly simple to make a few choices of how one wanted type to look. The programs then arbitrarily made a bunch of complicated choices that were once reserved for artists known as typographers.

The early desktop publishing was laughable to the type artists of the day. "Look! [Name of publication] went Mac!" was commonly heard, as the once-artistic typographic standards of publication after publication gave way to gappy lines, poor-to-nonexistent hyphenation, grossly exaggerated bold and italic letters, and poor pre-press text reproduction. But the humor was short-lived.

The benefits of artistic typography proved no match for the power of cost savings. Those typesetting artists who held their noses and jumped on board with Macintosh were (fairly) soon rewarded with the opportunity to override the programs and continue practicing their art, making more and more of the choices they made in the previous technological generation; and the greater efficiency and cost savings allowed them to produce far more work with far less help than they ever could before.

That was good news for some, but very bad news for others, as many, many skilled workers lost good-paying jobs, and now face the world with hard-won but largely-unmarketable skills. The sea of people and equipment it once took to bring a writer’s work to a printing press might now be one person with a computer hooked to a machine no bigger than an old-style photocopier.

The old-style typesetting equipment served us well, and we needed more modern capabilities just about the time it started getting tricky to supply and maintain the Compugraphic. We went Mac in 1993.

Just as Steve Jobs’ Macintosh did a surprise takeover of the publishing industry, he brought "digital" into other industries with surprising results. Who would really want to carry thousands of recorded songs in their pockets and stuff tiny buds into their ears to hear the music? Apparently just about everybody. And who would really want a mobile phone the size of a playing card that fetches their email, takes pictures, surfs the internet and does a zillion or so "apps?" Apparently, again, just about everybody.

All right, Apple, you have our attention. We’ll be ready to get on board sooner with your next sea change. And oh, by the way....who would really want that iPad gadget that’s bigger than the mobile phone and does some of that computer-like stuff but doesn’t even have a phone in it? Okay, let’s take a closer look at that......

Northeaster Opinion