Technology’s Effect on Newspaper Publishing

CustomNEWS, Inc. was founded in 1977 under the direction of publisher Ross Heller. The company was founded to serve the niche market of meeting-industry trade show and convention attendees, a market that was missing a consolidated source of industry-specific news and updates. The company’s main publication, USAE, is a newspaper that addresses that hole in the market and focuses on the industry changes that affect meeting planners and association executives in their search to plan the perfect convention. The now-weekly newspaper provides meeting planners and convention sales managers with updates on hotel and venue openings and closings, personnel movement within the industry and any current, relevant industry news.

After speaking with Heller, now the advertising sales manager and lead editor, regarding production in the publishing industry, one major theme arose – technology has affected every single aspect of the publishing and production process. From how the physical newspapers are printed to the way the layouts are prepared to the actual workflow and company dynamic; every department and person within the company has been touched and their responsibilities molded by the ever-changing publishing technology.

Changing technology within the publishing landscape has had a tremendous impact on the production and distribution of the USAE newspaper. When CustomNEWS was founded, Heller and his team had to compose their news stories on electric typewriters and then transfer that copy on to a Compugraphic type machine where they had to set the individual lines of copy and paste them on blue-line paper for reproduction and printing. As the newspaper grew, so did Heller’s production needs, and in 1984, he purchased his own Compugraphic machine for $13,000. His strategy in purchasing the Compugraphic was that having a typesetting machine in-house would eventually allow him to drastically reduce his operating costs, thereby increasing the revenue brought in by the newspaper. By the mid-nineties, much to Heller’s chagrin, the expensive Compugraphic machine was obsolete and digital typesetting had become the new norm in production. The production team still had to manually paste the strips that the digital typesetting machines created, but gone were the days of manual typesetting.

Now, the production department, which has been reduced from a team of five to a single professional, is able to create the entire newspaper from initial typesetting to the final print-ready layout on a single desktop computer in the span of a single workday. The streamlining of the production process has led to a downsizing of the entire company over the years. When the company started, they employed only a handful of reporters and outsourced their printing needs. As the company and popularity of USAE grew, they expanded and added an in-house production department of three employees, which eventually grew to five. As technology made the production of the newspaper easier, the production department was reduced until they finally landed on one production specialist and an outsourced printer.

The changes that technology brought about were not limited to the production workflow of the newspaper. Technology also affected the content and use of the newspaper itself. The newspaper’s main source of revenue comes from the sale of advertisements within the paper. Originally, those ads were only available in print format but growth in technology has allowed the addition of digital ads within their digital publications. A challenge has presented itself with the increasing popularity of electronic ads. Today’s customers want instant feedback on the success of their ads – how many ads were viewed and clicked, how many of those people that clicked on the ads actualized into new customers and how many of those actualized customers have turned in to return customers. These statistics are available to businesses within certain “buy-now” industries, but are incredibility difficult to pinpoint within the meetings industry because customers not “purchasing” something right away, even if they are clicking the ad. It could take years for an ad to actualize into business in the meetings industry, depending on how far out the individual clients are planning their annual conventions.

This lack of immediate feedback has lead to advertisers questioning the value of both the print and electronic advertisements that the newspaper relies on. USAE’s strategy to combat this industry-wide questioning of advertising value is to include original, often times investigative, reporting on industry trends and changes, something that most other meetings-industry publications are shying away from. Many of the other publications have done away completely with their print pieces and their e-services rely heavily on the aggregation of previously published links, a strategy that requires very little manpower and is thus much a much cheaper business option. While it is a cheaper option, it also leads to the same handful of stories being circulated around by each aggregator each week, which limits the value of those e-blasts and electronic publications. USAE on the other hand, relies on journalistic stories from four full-time reporters who create original stories for each weekly issue. Every single story and ad printed in the paper has to be approved by Heller before the issue can go to print to ensure that the paper maintains its intended journalistic style and high-class reputation. USAE has been successful in their value-added reporting strategy since they continue to gain revenue from their ad sales, thus proving to advertisers that their ad dollars, whether they are spent on print or digital ads, are being spent on a well-respected and trusted industry publication.

While there are a number of challenges that the newspaper has faced as a result of increasing technology, there have also been a number of opportunities that have arisen. As the steps in the production process itself have been reduced, so too has the turnaround time for the publication. Previously, the production department had to receive editorial text and advertisements at least two days before the print deadline so they could paste all of the copy strips and CMYK ad sheets in time for the hard printing deadline. Now, advertisers can send their materials in mere hours before the print deadline since it takes just a few simple clicks of the mouse to insert the ads into the full newspaper layout. Increasing technology has allowed CustomNEWS and USAE to expand their product offerings as well.

They are now able to offer to subscribers the printed newspaper, an electronic version of the full hard-copy paper, a daily e-newsletter, a weekly e-blast and a full webinar calendar. Each of these formats means new opportunities for advertising sales, which in turn means increased revenue for USAE. The newspaper has also taken advantage of technology when it comes to developing content for the issues. The lead editor receives Google Alerts for specific industry phrases and keywords, which are then used by the reporters in the development of their non-investigative stories. These Google Alerts let the reporters know what the aggregator competition will likely be including in their e-services and thus lets them stay competitive in their news selection while developing fuller, more in-depth stories about the current topics.

The optimal distribution method for the niche newspaper is via the industry trade show floor. Heller and his team attend each large-scale meetings industry trade show, about 10 per year, and hand out free copies of the newspaper to the show’s attendees. These trade show-specific issues are the main source of the annual revenue for the newspaper since they are able to sell significantly more ads in these issues than in the traditional weekly issues. More advertisers are willing to invest in ads in the trade show issues because they know that there is a guaranteed circulation of at least everyone who pre-registered for the trade show. The traditional weekly paper is eight pages long consisting of two, four-page folios. The trade show editions, however, can range from 16-24 pages depending on the specific show and how many unique ads the paper receives for that issue.

This change in production and length is reflected in both the print and the digital newspaper and leads to what Heller considers his favorite development in the today’s publishing world. While the print product is potentially limited in length by the traditional four-page folios, the digital product is not. If the printed newspaper contains four pages of edit and four pages of advertisements, Heller has to turn away any additional potential advertisers or cut pages of edit. The digital edition, however, provides them the opportunity to include as many full pages of edit the reporters turn in and as many advertisements as they can sell. The physical limitations of print and production are being obliterated, which is opening up the doors to many more options in terms of length and content.

Technology has affected each and every aspect of the publishing industry since CustomNEWS’s conception in 1979. Some of the changes due to technology have been a struggle to overcome but some changes have allowed the newspaper to produce a much fuller and richer product than they ever could have imagined. Overall, changing technology within the publishing industry is crushing traditional assumptions about production and workflow and opening up doors to opportunities no one would have ever dreamed possible a decade ago.

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