Most of us have heard of Johannes Gutenberg, the 15th century inventor credited for developing the printing press in the Western Hemisphere. It was only after his invention that it was made possible to circulate regular printed materials, leading to the birth of the newspapers in Strasbourg and the spread of the ‘press’ (named after the machine) across Europe. However, you might not know that a mechanised version of his letterpress printing machine was used up until the mid-20th century.
It’s hard to believe that Gutenberg’s press required a typesetter to set small metal letters into a hand-held tray called a ‘stick’, making each page one word at a time. Although the invention of the Linotype machine in 1884 made typesetting quicker and more efficient, by casting hot lead into a line of type with the assistance of an operator, it was still incredibly slow work. Newspaper pages were cut and pasted together one line of type at a time. Unlike modern presses, Gutenberg’s used a letterpress technique called ‘relief printing’. It utilised printing blocks or plates and pressed them directly onto the paper. There was a high risk of ‘set-off’ or ink leaking between the sheets of paper, which made the careful work of those operating the presses invaluable.
Thanks to the invention of the email in 1971, newsrooms can receive dispatches from anywhere in the world in a matter of seconds
During the 1970s, there was a historic shift away from the ‘hot-type’ machines used in relief printing and towards ‘cold-types’, which increased production speed and cut overhead costs. Offset printing became the method embraced by newspapers; it uses thin aluminium plates, etched with the image of the newspaper page, which is mounted onto the press. The metal plates don’t touch the paper, instead transferring their image to a rubber roller which prints the page — this is why it is referred to as ‘offset’ printing.
However, before a newspaper can go to print, it needs content to be produced by writers and editors. Before news could be accessed online or over the phone, publishers would have messengers waiting to meet ships coming from other parts of the world. With the invention of the telegraph in the mid-19th century, the latest stories could be transcribed much quicker from shorthand messages. Now, thanks to the invention of the email in 1971, newsrooms can receive dispatches from anywhere in the world in a matter of seconds.
Typewriters were introduced to offices in the 1880s and were a standard fixture for the following century, only being replaced by personal computers running word processing software in the 1980s. When offset printing became the norm, the ‘IBM Selectric Composer’ typewriter was adapted as the output unit for a typesetting system. The system included a computer-driven input station to capture the keystrokes on magnetic tape and insert the operator’s format commands, as well as a unit to read the tape and produce the formatted text for press reproduction. Several typewriter conventions were integrated in computer keyboards, such as ‘QWERTY’ layouts and backspacing.
It’s regularly predicted that the printed word is on the demise, with fewer physical copies of newspapers than ever before being available on shelves
Modern technology also replaced the Linotype typesetting process through a method called phototypesetting, introduced in the early 1950s. The first step in this process was transferring the ‘dummy’ to the page layout section of the newspaper and then producing a rough page prototype, which could be adjusted several times by the copy editor. If another breaking story came in, the page layout could be altered in a matter of minutes. Just like typewriters, the invention of the personal computer resulted in old-fashioned typesetting being phased out. The production process leading up to printing is entirely digital in the 21st century.
It’s regularly predicted that the printed word is on the demise, with fewer physical copies of newspapers than ever before being available on shelves. The rise of the internet, combined with the growth of other news sources, has greatly reduced the impact of print. But the move from print to online news might just be the next step in the evolution of media, like offset printing or the personal computer. Should we be mourning the death of print newspaper or is producing online content simply the latest innovation in journalism?