REPORTERS AT SASKATOON’S STAR PHOENIX CONSIDER THE EVOLUTION, OR THE END OF AN ERA, IN DAILY NEWS
(originally published Jan. 20/2009 in the Aquinian)
Les MacPherson cracks his knuckles before rubbing his bloodshot eyes. The light from his monitor glares back at him, waiting to be filled with his finished column before deadline.
“It’s not the same,” he says, taping out a few more words on his keyboard. “There was something about typewriters, the feel, the sound they made with every letter, that I really miss. And I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t give you carpal tunnel nearly as quick.”
For better or worse, MacPherson has seen his fair share of changes after working 35 years as a columnist for Saskatoon’s Star Phoenix. Voice recorders are now as essential as note pads. He can now submit his columns in seconds via email, when it once took four minutes to send a single page on the Captain Marvel.
“It was heavier than two cinder blocks,” he said of the not-so-portable device, which came in a massive Samsonite briefcase. “You’d have to spool each page on slowly, and you could be up half the night waiting for it to finish sending. No wonder Hunter Thompson put a bullet in his.”
He’s seen the Star Phoenix become one of last papers in Saskatchewan, and one of the last mid-size dailies in the world, to still have its own printing press.
In the mid 60s, only a few years before MacPherson would see his first byline, most papers around the world printed every page hot off their own presses. Copy editors at The Star Phoenix sat in front of a Linotype, retyping submitted stories that the press would mould onto cylindrical casts of each intended page. The casts were coated in ink and then the bump of every word and image on them were rolled, with over 400 pounds of pressure, onto the pages one at a time.
The Star Phoenix now uses a Universal 70 Press, ordered from France for $11 million. Its lasers burn the outlines of pictures and text onto steel plates, which weigh six ounces compared to the Linotypes’ 45 pound casts. The plates are pressed by water soaked sponge rollers, and those drops puddle around the images before the ink is applied. The whole process takes a fraction of the time that older presses needed, helping the Star Phoenix print 6500 copies over night every night.
Steve Jibb has been the Star Phoenix’s editor in chief, and MacPherson’s boss, since 1993. He still keeps one of the old Linotypes in the building’s lobby. He punches its space key, and it’s springy crack echoes for a moment as he walks back up to the newsroom, to be met with the near silent taps of Mac keyboards.
“If you take a glance around here it’s hard to tell this is any different from a bank or any other office,” he said, taking a glance of his own at a few of his nearby reporters, hunched over their screens. “Sometimes it’s hard not to miss the old days.”
“But there’s no doubt that the cutting edge was needed,” he went on. “We can make corrections easier, get better pictures and graphics, a more sophisticated layout. But more than anything, we can get our content out to the readers quicker and easier.”
It’s the cost of that necessary cutting edge that has Jibb, and every other editor around the world, worried- especially as readers use it to flock to the internet for free, instead of paying to read the front page.
“People have been saying the newspaper will die for years,” he said in a near huff. “According to them, it was supposed to happen 10 years ago. But they’re still holding on.”
And so is he. Pickup rates may fall, revenue may plummet with it, and the internet is no doubt the key to a new era in news. But Jibb said newspapers- especially local ones- will never die, because they are peoples’ strongest tie in their small communities.
“Newsites are quicker and easier, and any paper that doesn’t realize that won’t survive,” he said. “But whether you’re looking to clip out the picture of little Johnny’s soccer game to stick on the fridge, or the obit of one of your neighbor’s, local papers are the only place you can find that, reach it, and hold it in your hands.”
Photos taken by Kyle Mullin