The demise of paper

Back in the early 80s when I was a youngish journalist in a government department, computers were just beginning to make their appearance in the office. The typing pool had been hanging on grimly to monopolise the new-fangled word processors with their floppy discs the size of long-playing records – and they really did flop – but theirs was always going to be a losing battle. The writing was on the wall. Desktop Apple computers and terminals for the glacially slow Prime mainframe started to turn up.

We were quick to seize on the limited opportunities they offered – creating our own clunky databases for example. Our system of mailed press releases was replaced with a revolutionary (for the time) system where we pumped them out via a desktop computer linked to a dedicated teleprinter network. It was also extremely expensive to set up. Our press releases clattered out happily on teleprinters in newspapers and magazines around New Zealand and for several years in the early 198os it was a wildly successful system. But it was in a technological blind alley and left behind with the arrival of faxes and then the internet and email.

If anything, productivity was probably not much better than before computers for the next decade or so. It was only when costs started to drop (our first Apple 2E at MAF cost about $14,000 in today’s money), computing speed and storage capacity improved, and of course the internet arrived, that we saw much efficiency. We had been keen to exploit whatever these new machines could do and our initial expectations were often way beyond their capacity. Nonetheless it was amazing what we could do with the eye-wateringly expensive IBM golfball typesetting machine with its 2000 character memory. It didn’t take us long to figure out – with the help of some programmers – how to code our text and send it straight for typesetting on tape or disc, thereby heralding the demise of the compositor, a trade with a long and distinguished history.

The conventional wisdom at the time was that computers would eventually make us all so productive that we’d be soon working four-day weeks and wondering what the hell to do with all our leisure time. Another expectation was that we would soon see the “paperless office”. The first prediction was laughably off target and the second has taken decades to start being realised.

It’s only now with the arrival of large-capacity, cloud-based storage and high-speed connections that it’s become safe and reliable to do away with paper records. That hit home to me a year or so ago when I shifted offices after more than 15 years in a rambling and spacious penthouse. I tossed trailer-loads of paper records, old print samples and the like – truth be told I hadn’t accessed them for years. I haven’t missed them a bit.

The demise of offset print  was widely predicted from the mid 1990s as the internet began to spread its tentacles and digital print arrived, but again it’s taken a few years to bite. It’s starting to happen now, though, and we’re seeing some painful contraction happening in the print industry. Those who are nimble enough to reduce costs and capture the diminishing amount of print work are surviving, but many smaller and mid-size printers have gone. We are also seeing some large-scale casualties with over-geared companies that have expanded too fast and been overly aggressive with their price cutting. The GFC hasn’t helped, but shrinkage in the print industry was always going to happen sooner or later. It’s hard to know if and when the industry will stabilise, but it’s not a good time to have money invested in the print business.

My worry is that we could reach at tipping point where large, multi-service print businesses can no longer survive. As print buyers we’ll lose choice and the benefits of economy of scale that these companies now offer and that would be a shame. My morning paper is gradually getting thinner, I get as much of my news via my iPad these days as I do reading the paper, and I read most books that on the tablet too. Right now we’re spoiled for choice about how and when we access information, but the extinction of cheap paper-based communication could pose real challenges. The question is – should we be subsidising the print industry and accept higher (or at least flat) costs to ensure it doesn’t collapse entirely?


Seeking perfection

Being a writer and editor/subeditor can be something of a burden when it comes to being a consumer of other people’s work in journalism.

Too often it’s easy to get distracted by an errant apostrophe, Oxford comma or clumsy sentence instead of just sitting back and appreciating what’s been written or said. Who could resist taking a friendly dig at the hapless TV3 journalist who reported a motel had been “exterminated” after a bed bug infestation. Or the former TV presenter appearing on a large billboard spruiking carpets with the priceless “If your thinking about new carpet…”

It’s all good fun, but none of us is immune to editorial stuff-ups. While we can get a good laugh at the expense of our colleagues we all secretly dread the day when we let slip our own clanger.

Some people get very angry about poor standards of written and spoken language while others can be rather mean. For example there is a Facebook page dedicated to picking up errors and unintentional humour on the Stuff website. Needless to say they have plenty of material to work with. My own favourite from recent days was the juxtaposition of these two headlines: “Raw milk market revives faith in nutritious food”, followed closely by “Campylobacter outbreak linked to raw milk”. To be fair to the Fairfax staffers, there must be incredible pressure to keep the Stuff site refreshed with new material, although I do despair at the heavy bias towards lightweight celebrity gossip stories – perhaps ideal fodder for people enjoying a sneaky mini-break from work.

Should we care about standards of writing in the wider domain? Yes and no. 

Those of us who write and edit for a living certainly have a duty to maintain good standards, while keeping an open mind about the evolution of punctuation, grammar and usage. Given the huge volumes of wordage churned out today by journalists, marketers, advertisers and others it’s surprising that their output is not riddled with more errors. But I’m not one for just giving up on certain conventions (not using apostrophes is plurals for example) simply because so many people get it wrong.

Some would argue that there has been a sharp, recent decline in the ability of the younger generation to express themselves accurately and clearly, be it in print or via the spoken word. I don’t think that’s true. If TradeMe had been around 50 years ago, I reckon the mangled English we see in today’s online forums would have been just as bad then as now. But 50 years ago the best written communications technology available to most was a typewriter and a landline. Relatively few people typed and those who did were fairly well trained with a good eye for detail. Since the democratisation of the keyboard in the past 30-40 years we see a much more representative sampling of people’s literacy in the public domain than ever before.

I had a conversation with a primary school teacher about the use of apostrophes. “Oh no!” she said. “We don’t teach those any more. We just tell the kids not to use them at all, because that way they won’t make any mistakes!” That conversation was 20 years ago. Further back, I have family letters dating from over a century ago. They’re littered with punctuation and spelling errors, although as far as I know my granny was a well brought-up and educated young woman. Plus ca change.

For a bit more on why we all get so exercised about grammar there’s this good article on the, er, Stuff website (well, okay, they borrowed it from their brothers and sisters at the Sydney Morning Herald…)


Great! Another blog

Just what the world needs – another blogger’s voice to fill that great empty void in cyberspace!

I’m an avid reader of several blogs and occasionally chip in to the discussion threads, some of which can be fun, entertaining and enlightening. In a perfect world the blogger’s post starts a conversation, others join in and we end up with some food for thought or knowing stuff we didn’t know before. Of course it’s a far from perfect world and discussion threads on some of our more notorious blog sites turn into fairly unpleasant places with a lot of grandstanding and rock throwing. Touch wood this will be a kinder, gentler blog.

This will be an eclectic mix of observations on current events (it is an election year after all), stuff I encounter through my work as an editor and writer here in Wellington and out on the road, and much else besides.

I will do my utmost to avoid the angry-talkback caller-at-midnight syndrome and try not to use this as a platform for airing pet peeves – but then I’m new at this, so we’ll see how it turns out. I’ll also ensure the posts are updated fairly regularly. I’m also setting up photo and video posts on this site just to add a little interest and ensure it’s not too wordy. And on the subject of being too wordy I shall also avoid these getting too long – longer than a tweet but just the chorus, not the whole song.

So, to quote the venerable Geoff Robinson as he signed off from his final Morning Report on 1 April to the strains of the kokako tweeting: “Goodbye”