The Push to Pagination: The Impact of a New Technology on Canadian Daily Newspapers

Catherine McKercher (School of Journalism, Carleton University)


In newspaper offices across Canada, editors, reporters and production workers are talking about a computer technology that is going to eliminate some jobs and change the nature of others. It's called pagination and, while it is not yet the standard production equipment for Canadian newspapers, everyone involved in the business knows it is on the way.

In a full-fledged news pagination system, an editor sitting at a computer terminal can select the copy for a page, edit it, write the headlines, select and size the photographs and graphics, lay out the page and set the whole thing in type as a unit. The page is then photographed and made into a printing plate. (Eventually, computer specialists say, the camera stage will be eliminated and pages will be transmitted directly from the editing terminal to the printing press.)

This paper discusses research I am conducting on the spread of pagination technology in Canadian daily newspapers and the impact it has on two groups of newspaper workers: composing room employees and news desk editors. Some findings were presented at the June 1989 meeting of the Canadian Communication Association.

With the notable exception of Ottawa's tabloid Le Droit, none of the major dailies in Canada are at the stage of total pagination yet. For one thing, some elements of the technology are still very new and very expensive. For another, compositors at several newspapers have negotiated job guarantees, a factor that has slowed the push for technological change. As a result, even at Canada's most fully paginated dailies, such as the pioneering Windsor Star, compositors still do some paste-up work. (Their main job is sticking photographs on the page.)

But the push to pagination is increasingly strong. By the end of 1992, one in four Canadian dailies expects to be using some form of pagination. And this means major changes in the organization and operation of newspapers.


John Shipman (1986) has provided a comprehensive review of the literature on the introduction of computers in newspapers in the 1970s. Oldrich Standera (1987) has examined the development of desktop publishing, a form of pagination technology. And there is ample technical material in trade journals about the newest bells and whistles in the computer business.

Little research has been done, however, on the spread of pagination technology in Canadian daily newspapers. So the first step in this research project was to find out who is using what.

A survey of publishers, funded by a small research grant from Carleton University, was distributed to 110 daily newspapers during the summer of 1988. Fifty-six dailies responded to the survey. Interviews were conducted with editors or publishers at most of the papers indicating plans to convert to pagination. Editors at some other newspapers that did not respond to the survey were contacted by mail or telephone, raising the total number contacted to about 70. Since then, the author has kept in contact with dailies on the brink of transition.

My focus was strictly on news pages. The following discussion is in no way a definitive portrait of the Canadian newspaper industry. But it uses the most up-to-date material available to this researcher to sketch out the spread of pagination technology and begin to discuss its impact.

The Push to Pagination

The computers installed in newspapers in the 1970s revolutionized the way newspapers were produced. Reporters wrote their stories on computer terminals instead of typewriters; editors worked electronically, instead of with a pencil; and the job of setting stories into type was done by an editor using a computer, instead of a compositor working at a linotype machine. Fewer compositors were needed, and their work was de-skilled to cutting strips of type and pasting them on a page.

Pagination was to be the next step in newspaper production, and many in the industry expected it to spread as rapidly in the 1980s as the previous systems did in the 1970s. This didn't happen as planned, however. As one Toronto Star editor said, "I've been hearing that pagination is five years away for the last 15 years."

While pagination sounds simple, the technology to achieve it is complicated, and it took the major U.S. manufacturers longer than initially projected to come up with working systems at affordable prices. Meanwhile, unions representing compositors sought to protect their remaining members by negotiating job guarantees. This meant that, even if publishers bought new computers that made compositors redundant, they had to keep the workers on staff. As a result, many papers adopted attrition policies: when a compositor retired, the job was not filled.

Finally, the spread of personal computers and desktop publishing in the mid-1980s presented newspaper publishers with a new option: the use of small, inexpensive personal computers (PCs) to supplement the main computer system and extend its usefulness for a few more years--or perhaps even to replace it.

The first large-scale news pagination system in Canada went into operation in 1985, when the Windsor Star purchased a system from the Harris Corp. of Melbourne, FL. A year later, the Hamilton Spectator purchased its own Harris system. Since then, the survey and interviews found, the number of newspapers adopting pagination technology--either the large-scale systems put out by manufacturers such as Harris or the small desktop equipment--has accelerated at a stunning rate.

Some of Canada's largest newspapers, including the Globe and Mail, have made the switch. Others plan to do so soon. Research for this paper found that by 1992, 27 dailies will be using some form of the technology, to a greater or lesser degree. These include major dailies such as the Ottawa Citizen and Winnipeg Free Press, mid-size dailies such as the Kingston Whig-Standard and small dailies such as the North Bay Nugget. Of all dailies contacted, only eight rejected pagination flat out. Four would not comment on future plans. The rest indicated an interest in switching to pagination at some point in the future.

Why is the push to pagination happening now? Interviews with editors and publishers found that two key factors are the age of current equipment and the effect of attrition policies.

Computers installed in the 1970s are now well past their prime. Some newspapers are operating with "orphan" systems: the company that made the Globe's newsroom computers, for example, no longer makes newspaper terminals. In the composing room, meanwhile, long-standing attrition policies have reduced staff significantly. As a result, many newspapers are at a critical point: they must either buy new computers or hire new compositors. (As an interim measure, some newspapers are supplementing current production equipment with desktop publishing units for non-daily sections.)

Buying a pagination system is a substantial expense. Industry estimates say the costs range from tens of thousands of dollars for small, off-the-shelf desktop systems on up to several hundred thousand dollars or even over a million for systems produced by the major vendors (Associated Press Managing Editors Telecommunications and Technology Committee, 1985, pp. 15-21). But the expense can be offset by savings on salaries and benefits. An Associated Press Managing Editors survey of seven U.S. newspapers found that annual savings as a percentage of cost per system ranged from 13 to 40%.


Standera (1987) has identified a number of trends brought about by the desktop revolution. One is a change in the centre of gravity of publishing, with control moving closer to the author or editor. A second is what he calls the vanishing borders of pre-press activities. Barbara Hyland of the Globe and Mail compared the change to integrating the design and manufacturing functions in industry. "Pagination closes the gap between design and makeup," she says. "There is no longer a clear distinction."

Closing the gap puts the squeeze on the production workers. That itself is nothing new: according to U.S. Labor Department statistics, the percentage of production workers in the total newspaper work force dropped from 43.4% in 1976 to 38.2% in 1981 (Newsom, 1983, p. 5). The number of active Canadian and American members of the former International Typographical Union (now part of the Communications Workers of America) has dropped from more than 84,000 in the 1960s to 33,000 now. Canadian membership is between 9,000 and 10,000, says Richard Weatherdon, Canadian director of the Printing Publishing and Media Workers Sector of the CWA. The relatively high Canadian numbers are attributed to the fact the union has expanded recruiting efforts beyond the composing room, and in some cases, beyond the newspaper.

There is no doubt that pagination will result in more job loss in the composing room. In the newsroom, the technology triggers a different set of changes. It is difficult to track job creation as a result of pagination. Several editors interviewed indicated no plans to expand the size of their news desks; others indicated one or two editors would be hired. Clearly, however, the number of composing room jobs being eliminated is far higher than the number of editorial jobs being created.

The job of copy editor traditionally is one of "wordsmith": an editor takes a story written by a reporter and checks it over for content, style, grammar, presentation, accuracy, spelling and so on. Editors at non-paginated papers edit the copy electronically, and use paper "dummies" to design the way the stories should appear on the page. They write the headlines and set the stories in strips of type. Compositors paste the type onto the pages, following the dummy.

With pagination, however, the job of putting the type on the pages becomes the work of the editor. This requires editors to perform new functions--functions of a technical, non-traditional and production-oriented nature.

Several editors and publishers responding to my 1988 survey identified the transfer of control over pages to the news desk as one of the main benefits in pagination. Production Editor Bill Muir of the Hamilton Spectator put it this way: "It gives the news desk total control over the look and design of pages. We're no longer at the mercy of people who can't paste type on straight." A study of American dailies by John T. Russial (1989) found that, for the most part, the copy editors who actually use the system like the control it gives them. Canadian copy editors I interviewed made similar comments.

But there is a down-side to gaining more control. Russial (1989, pp. 252-262) says an editor's job can now be construed as having two components: the time spent using a computer to perform editing tasks and the time spent using a computer terminal to do tasks formerly done by the back shop. His study of American dailies found that pagination adds 15 minutes to the time an editor spends on a page. In addition, "pagination appears to increase the proportion of must-do tasks, and in particular, the proportion of must-do tasks that are relatively mechanical or routine" (1989, p. 123).

The most pressing point for editors is the question of whether pagination takes away from the editing skills. Here there is no clear answer. Some editors state emphatically that, with pagination, editors spend more time manipulating type and that, as a result, the quality of the editing suffers. Others say, equally emphatically, that the efficiency of putting the pages together on the machines eliminates the time spent running back and forth to the composing room at non-paginated dailies. Some editors now see part of their work as wrestling with an unfriendly machine; others see it as working with a sophisticated new tool.

For many newspapers, the introduction of pagination has forced a reorganization--sometimes, a series of reorganizations--in the way news desks function. Muir says that, in the early days, the Spectator ran into problems with errors: editors were so caught up in operating the machinery that they didn't catch spelling mistakes. Other dailies reported similar problems. Shifting the arrangement and duties of the deskers may lead to more efficient copy flow but the shuffling of jobs can be stressful for editors, especially when they are already facing the stress of adapting to a new technology.

One of the major problems in converting to pagination is finding time to train editors adequately. Most newspapers operate tight news desks: they simply do not have enough staff to cover while two or three editors go away for long-term training sessions. But editors working with the equipment agree that it can take a long time--some say up to six months--to learn how to operate it as well as they should. Some newspapers now seem to put a premium on computing skills when recruiting editors. James Duff, publisher of the now-defunct Montreal Daily News, says, "We hired people on the basis of computer/pagemaking ability as much as journalistic talent."

The Harris company seems to be the manufacturer of choice for Canadian dailies; its clients include the Globe and Mail, Kingston Whig-Standard, Edmonton Journal, Hamilton Spectator and Windsor Star. The Harris pagination terminal is a complex machine with a multi-function keyboard, a large screen, a "mouse" with four colour-coded command keys, and a template activated by the "mouse" that has literally dozens of possible selections. An editor can learn the basics of how to put a page together in a few days of training, but it takes much longer than that to work at a level that challenges the capabilities of both editor and machine. And the learning period can be intensely stressful.

"The interaction with the machine was something that took me a long time to get used to," says one Globe and Mail copy editor. "It's so very complex that every little thing you want to do takes three or four different steps.... I found I could not talk to anyone while I was working on the machine. If anyone interrupted me, I resented it."

The desktop-type systems used mainly by the smaller dailies are easier to operate, and this in part explains their appeal to the newspapers that don't need enormous storage and retrieval capacity of the Harris systems. Publisher John Buchanan of the Kenora Daily Miner and News says training on his paper's Macintosh/Quark setup takes roughly a day. He says that to operate the larger systems, "you have to be a piano player."


This paper has sketched out the spread of a new computer technology that is eliminating some jobs at Canadian newspapers and prompting a major redefinition of others. Pagination, while not yet the predominant technology used to produce Canadian daily newspapers, is increasingly becoming the standard. Pagination's impact on production jobs is fairly clear: it will hasten the decline of the composing room.

The impact on editors is harder to assess, and many questions remain to be addressed. How does it affect the quality of editing in daily newspapers? Does it improve or damage the quality of work life for editors? Does it redefine the essence of what makes a good editor? In the long run how will it affect employment levels in the newsroom? Will it require new forms of training for editors? These questions form a basis for future research into pagination.


The original survey identified 22 newspapers planning to begin or complete the switch by 1992. (In addition, one newspaper gave 1995 as its timetable for completion.) Interviews with editors found that in 1989, Southam Corp. bought seven of its non-metropolitan dailies new computers that are capable of pagination. Conversion began last year. This raised the total to 29. Two newspapers identified in the survey--Le Matin of Moncton and the Daily News of Montreal--have since closed, dropping the figure to 27.
Six newspapers responding to the survey rejected pagination. The publishers of two others did so in interviews with the author.
Michael F. Hanke, Does pagination mean savings? Papers say yes, in Meet the future: A report on pagination and other mystical things (produced by the Associated Press Managing Editors Committee on Technology, 1987), p. 8.
Russial notes that the main union representing newsroom workers, the Newspaper Guild, has shown relatively little interest in assessing the implications of pagination for copy editors, beyond traditional concerns such as workplace safety (1989, p. 267). The fact that the technology is seen as creating jobs for editors may help explain this.


Books and Articles

Associated Press Managing Editors. (1988, October). Media technology report. Boston, MA.

Associated Press Managing Editors Committee on Technology. (1987). Meet the future: A report on pagination and other mystical things. Sacramento, CA.

Associated Press Managing Editors Telecommunications and Technology Committee. (1985). Pagination: An editor's guide to understanding new technology. San Francisco, CA.

Dertouzos, James N., & Quinn, Timothy H. (1985, September). Bargaining responses to the technology revolution: The case of the newspaper industry. Labor-Management Co-operation Brief. U.S. Department of Labor.

Johnstone, John W. C. (1976). Organizational constraints on newswork. Journalism Quarterly, 53, 5-13.

Lindley, William R. (1988, Summer). From hot type to video screens: Editors evaluate new technology. Journalism Quarterly, 65, 485-489.

Newsom, Clark. (1983, March). Retraining: Workers in superfluous jobs get new opportunities. Presstime, pp. 4-9.

Russial, John T. (1989, August). Pagination and the newsroom: Great expectations. Dissertation submitted to Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.

Seybold Report on Desktop Publishing. (1988, July 25), 17(20-21).

Shipman, John M., Jr. (1986, Fall). Computerization and job satisfaction in the newsroom: Four factors to consider. Newspaper Research Journal, 8, 69-78.

Standera, Oldrich. (1987). The electronic era of publishing: An overview of concepts, technologies and methods. New York: Elsevier.

Truitt, Rosalind C. (1987, June). Pagination: Slowly finding a newspaper niche. Presstime, pp. 16-18.


Buchanan, John. Publisher, The Daily Miner and News, Kenora, Ontario. (By telephone August 1988).

Duff, James. Managing editor, Montreal Daily News. (In person, October 1988. Note: Mr. Duff later became publisher. The newspaper has since ceased publication.)

Doyle, Mary. Copy editor, Focus section, Toronto Globe and Mail. (In person, April 1989).

Hyland, Barbara. Director of electronic publishing, Toronto Globe and Mail. (By telephone August 1988; April 1989).

Muir, Bill. Production editor, Hamilton Spectator. (By telephone August 1988).

Rennie, James. Deputy managing editor, Toronto Star. (By telephone, August, 1988. Note: Mr. Rennie died last winter.)

Weatherdon, Richard. Canadian Director, Printing Publishing and Media Workers Section, Communications Workers of America, Ottawa. (In person April 1989).

White, Kerry, Copy editor, entertainment section, Toronto Globe and Mail. (In person, April 1989).

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