Nowdays people might read a newspaper in printed form, on a tablet or via a smartphone.

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Introduction to How Newspapers Work

The newspaper as we know it should probably be dead. Mass dissemination of information has adapted to the digital age in remarkable ways: in blogs, tweets, breaking news e-mails, customized content and online editions of newspapers that used to announce their readerships in ink-stained fingertips. In 2010, for the first time ever, more people got their news online than in print [source: Mirkinson]. The slow decline of the daily paper has, for many years, seemed inevitable.

And then something funny happened. In August 2013, Amazon.com founder and general Internet billionaire Jeff Bezos bought the struggling Washington Post, one of the most prominent newspapers in the United States [source: Associated Press]. And suddenly we're wondering if reports of newspapers' death may be greatly exaggerated.

Newspapers, after all, are the original form of broadband communication, a distinction not always recognized in the age of the Internet. Long before we had tablets, smartphones, computers, television, radio, telephones and telegraph, newspapers were the cheapest and most efficient way to reach mass audiences with news, commentary and advertising. Newspapers, from their beginnings as hand-printed "broadsheets," have been a true random-access medium -- readers can move easily and quickly through the different sections of a newspaper, returning to them days or even weeks later. And because a newspaper's "software" consists of a common language, it possesses a universal and timeless quality. For example, a newspaper published before the American Revolution is as readable today as it was in 1775.

Yet while that newspaper from 1775 is still readable, there's at least one great disparity between that one and its modern counterpart. Newspapers may go back hundreds of years, but the definition of "news that's fit to print," to quote the famous New York Times motto, does not.

The Rise of the Newspaper

A newspaper from 1775 may still be readable, but you might not recognize what you're reading as news. It would have been published under the whim of a British colonial government with little tolerance for the free expression of ideas -- particularly radical political ideas. The First Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights added to the American Constitution in 1791, forbids laws abridging freedom of the press; in an era of kings and emperors, this was a heretical unleashing of individual freedom and a frightening challenge to state authority. It remains so in many nations today.

The principles and practices that govern today's newspapers -- journalistic objectivity, concise writing, national and international news -- emerged after the American Civil War. This was the Golden Era of daily newspapers, golden not only in their enormous number, but also in the profits that allowed press barons like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer to live on a regal scale. Never before or since have newspapers wielded so much influence on American politics and culture. Hearst, part of whose newspaper empire survives today, was so powerful that he is credited (or blamed) for the outbreak of war with Spain in 1898.

With the growth of television news in the 1960s, newspapers confronted their first formidable competitor, but they continued to play a central role in informing, explaining, uncovering and inciting throughout the 20th century. Richard Nixon's legacy would doubtless be quite different were it not for famed reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and The Washington Post [source: Fisher]. When they broke the Watergate story, it brought down a president.

Today, even with online news edging out the printed version, the newspaper is still a force for revelation and change. When National Security Administration leaker Edward Snowden wanted to reveal what he knew, his first call โ€“ er, e-mail -- was to a Guardian U.K. reporter named Glenn Greenwald (who initially ignored him, partly because Greenwald found the encryption process Snowden relied on to communicate to be "really annoying and complicated") [source: Maass].

E-competition and growing pains aside, newspapers are nothing short of miraculous when you consider how much has to happen, in less than a day, to get a finished product into the hands of readers. Many different individuals and departments contribute to a process that resembles a river with numerous tributaries. Among the streams are five with daily importance to a newspaper's readers -- news, editorial, advertising, production and distribution.

Ideally, news comes first.

Reporters hard at work in the newsroom at The Herald-Sun

Photo by Bernard Thomas

Reporting the News

Curiously, for a publication called a newspaper, no one has ever coined a standard definition of news. But for the most part, news usually falls under one broad classification -- the abnormal. It is human folly, mechanical failures and natural disasters that often "make the news."

Reporters are a newspaper's front-line eyes and ears. Reporters glean information from many sources, some public, such as police records, and others private, such as a government informant. Occasionally, a reporter will go to jail rather than reveal the name of a confidential source for a news story. American newspapers proudly consider themselves the fourth branch of government -- the watchdog branch -- that exposes legislative, executive and judicial misbehavior.

Some reporters are assigned to beats, or an area of coverage, such as the courts, city hall, education, business, medicine and so forth. Others are called general assignment reporters, which means they are on call for a variety of stories such as accidents, civic events and human-interest stories. Depending on a newspaper's needs during the daily news cycle, seasoned reporters easily shift between beat and general-assignment work.

In the movies, reporters have exciting, frenzied and dangerous jobs as they live a famous pronouncement of the newspaper business: "Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Although a few members of the media have been killed as a result of investigations into wrongdoing, newspaper work for the great majority of reporters is routine. They are our chroniclers of daily life, sorting, sifting and bringing a sense of order to a disorderly world.

All reporters are ultimately responsible to an editor. Depending on its size, a newspaper may have numerous editors, beginning with an executive editor responsible for the news division. Immediately below the executive editor is the managing editor, the person who oversees the day-to-day work of the news division. Other editors -- sports, photo, state, national, features and obituary, for example -- may also report to the managing editor.

However, the best known and in some ways the most crucial editor is the city or metro editor. This is the editor that most reporters work for directly. The city or metro editor assigns stories, enforces deadlines and is among the first to see reporters' raw copy. Underneath the city or metro editor are other editors who report directly to him or her.These editors are called gatekeepers, because they control much of what will and will not appear in the next day's paper. Often working under the stress of breaking news, their decisions translate directly into the content of the newspaper.

Once an editor has finished editing a reporter's raw copy, the story moves to another part of the news division, the copy desk. Here, copy editors check for spelling and other errors of usage. They may also look for "holes" in the story that would confuse readers or leave their questions unanswered. If necessary, copy editors may check facts in the newspaper's library, which maintains a large collection of both digital and print reference materials, including past newspaper issues.

The copy-desk chief routes finished stories to other editors who fit local and wire service stories, headlines (written by the editor, not the reporter!) and digital photographs onto pages. Most newspapers do this work, called pagination, with personal computers using software available at any office supply store.

Before we see what happens to the electronic pages built by the copy desk, it will be helpful to understand how other divisions of a newspaper contribute to the production cycle.

Editorial Pages

A newspaper publishes its views on current events -- both local and national -- on its editorial page. This is where letters to the editor, political cartoons, and editorials -- unsigned commentary that reflects the collective position of the newspaper's editorial board -- appear. Letters are often among the best-read section of any newspaper, for this is where readers express their opinions. Some newspapers limit letters to a certain number of words โ€“ maybe 150 or 300 -- while others publish letters of virtually any length.

Editorials are not news, but rather reasoned opinion based on facts. For example, editorials may criticize the performance of public officials such as the mayor, the police chief or the local school board; conversely, editorials may praise others for their civic contributions. Whatever the topic, newspapers hope their editorials will raise the level of community discourse.

Also under the "editorial" umbrella are the op-ed pieces. Op-ed is a contraction of "opposite the editorial" page (not "opinion editorial," a common misconception) [source: Boston Globe]. Op-eds run on the page opposite the editorial page and often publish opinion articles written by people not employed by the newspaper [source: Boston Globe]. For instance, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by U.S. President Barack Obama in January 2011 that discussed his administration's views on government regulation, and the world learned of actress Angelina Jolie's double mastectomy via an op-ed she wrote for The New York Times in May 2013 [sources: Parramore, Jolie].

The editorial pages are under the direction of an editor outside the news division. Newspaper people call this "separation of church and state," meaning there is a line between news and opinion that must not be crossed. To do so strips a newspaper of its most valuable asset -- credibility. For that reason, editorial-page editors at some large newspapers report to the publisher, who is the chief executive officer of the company, and not to the executive editor. Other newspapers may have their editorial-page editor reporting to the executive editor. Whatever the organizational model, though, neither department can tell the other what to publish in the newspaper.

Which brings us to another insulated department in newspaper publishing: advertising.

Classified ads are often set in a miniature typeface called agate.

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Advertising

The number of pages beyond a minimum that most newspapers set is determined not by the news division, but by the amount of advertising sold for that day. (Regardless of advertising, however, newspapers add extra news pages for big local stories such as tornadoes, sports championships or other major events.) The advertising division places ads on pages before they are released to the news division. As a rule, newspapers print slightly more advertising than news, although the larger Sunday division may print more news than ads. The ratio of ads to news must be high because newspapers cannot stay in business without advertising revenue. Editors call the space left for them a "news hole." The advertising division and the news division have no influence over each other's content.

Three types of advertising dominate modern newspapers:

  1. Display ads: With photos and graphics, display ads can cost thousands of dollars depending on their size. These ads, generally placed by department stores, movie theaters and other businesses, may be prepared by an advertising agency or the advertising department itself. They are called run-of-press ads and they produce the most revenue.
  2. Classified ads: Often called want ads, these appear in a miniature typeface called agate. These ads come from people trying to buy or sell items, businesses seeking workers or tradespeople offering a wide variety of services.
  3. Inserts: These colorful booklets, which are multipage ads for one store, are trucked to newspapers in huge bundles for distribution with the Sunday edition. Inserts produce less revenue than run-of-press advertising. Newspapers charge for distributing inserts, but otherwise have no control over their content or print quality.

With ads, news and editorials ready to go, the presses start revving up.

Modern presses are huge and noisy but expensive and essential to the success of a newspaper.

Photo courtesy of The Herald-Sun

Newspaper Production

The production division does the heavy lifting of newspaper work. Within this division's departments are specialists who run and maintain the presses, typesetters, image scanners and photographic engraving machines. Some workers are assigned to the day shift, others to the night shift.

Beginning around 1970, newspaper production divisions began a historic shift away from the labor-intensive technology of Linotype typesetters and other "hot type" machines used in relief printing. This was the same technique used by Johannes Gutenberg in the 14th century: pressing a page of paper directly onto a block of type. The invention of "cold type" based on photographic processes sped production and cut the high overhead costs of relief printing. Also, cold type worked better with new offset printing presses coming into use.

Most daily newspapers use some form of offset printing. This process etches the image of a newspaper page onto thin aluminum plates. (Pages with color photos or type require extra plates.) These plates, now bearing a positive image developed from a full-page photographic negative, then go to other specialists for mounting on the press. The process is called offset because the metal plates do not touch the paper going through the press. Instead, the plates transfer their inked image to a rubber roller, which in turn prints the page.

Although newspaper presses are big and noisy, they are remarkably gentle on newsprint, the paper in newspaper. The presses have to be gentle -- expensive newsprint streaming off huge rolls must wind through a press without tearing. These complex machines, which can cost tens of millions of dollars and reach seven stories tall, are called "web presses" because they use streaming paper instead of individual sheets [source: Knoxville News Sentinel].

In addition to putting ink on paper, the press also assembles the pages of a newspaper in correct sequence. All this occurs so quickly that a modern offset-press can spew 70,000 copies an hour onto conveyor belts that speed the copies to the waiting distribution division [source: Knoxville News Sentinel].

Newspaper distributors pick up their bundles at The Herald-Sun in the early hours of the morning.

Photo courtesy of the The Herald-Sun

Newspaper Distribution

Responsibility for getting the newspaper from the press to the reader falls to the distribution division. Large newspapers may publish multiple editions per day, all of which must be ready to leave the newspaper plant at a certain time. The first edition, sometimes called the bulldog edition, goes to the outer limits of the newspaper's circulation area. This may be several counties or even an entire state. Later editions contain progressively fresher news and go to smaller areas. The final edition, which goes to press after midnight, contains the latest news but covers the smallest geographical area, usually a city.

Any subscriber to a daily newspaper knows that it plops onto the driveway in the wee hours of the morning. Independent contractors called carriers buy copies of the newspaper at a discount and deliver them, using their personal vehicles [source: News-Gazette].

The circulation department draws the routes that carriers follow. This department is also responsible for rack sales, newspapers that go into coin-operated dispensers. The circulation department maintains subscribers' billing records, stops and starts deliveries upon request, and uses service runners to deliver missing papers.

Because a newspaper's circulation, the number of people who receive the paper, has a substantial impact on its advertising rates, an independent agency called the Alliance of Audited Media examines and certifies circulation numbers. This assures both the advertising division and advertisers that circulation claims are valid.

In 18 hours of highly coordinated work carried out by numerous divisions, what newspaper people call a "rough draft of history" has moved through computer systems, imaging machines and presses that would amaze Gutenberg, to its final destination -- the readers.

Those readers once comprised pretty much anyone hungry for news and information. Then came TV, and some of those readers starting tuning in instead of flipping pages. And in the 21st century, newspapers face what is likely their biggest challenge yet: the digital revolution.

How to survive and even flourish in a culture more attuned to electronic media than to printer's ink is an issue the newspaper industry has been dealing with for years, with varying degrees of success.

Many newspapers now charge for you to access their content online.

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Changes in the Digital Age

In the last decade or so, newspapers have found themselves slipping from their once-unchallenged role as news providers. According to the Newspaper Association of America, overall daily circulation in 2011 was down more than 4 million compared to 2008 and more than 11 million from 2001 [source: Newspaper Association of America]. From 2011 to 2012 alone, advertising revenue dropped 6 percent, and total revenue dropped 2 percent [source: Newspaper Association of America]. Revenue from print classifieds decreased by more than 75 percent between 2000 and 2012 [source: Edmunds]. Online advertising usually brings in just a fraction of what print advertising used to.

It has been clear for some time that newspapers would have to make adjustments in order to survive in an increasingly digital age. A significant online-news presence is a must. A focus on online advertising is a must. Additional online offerings like newsletters and custom content are a must. Some newspapers have generated extra revenue by helping local businesses market their products and using their delivery resources to transport products for others [source: Newspaper Association of America].

It's a shift that has been underway for years. Most newspapers now have online editions. Subscription models have gone beyond print-only into digital-only and print-digital combinations -- and as print-only circulation is dropping, digital and combination circulation is on the rise. As print-advertising revenue continues to decline, digital-advertising revenue continues to grow, though not enough yet to make up for the shortfall [source: Newspaper Association of America].

Many newspapers with online editions โ€“ almost one-third of those in the U.S., in fact -- are experimenting with a departure from traditional ad-based revenue in favor of paywalls, or charging for online content [source: Lazaroff]. Some require subscriptions for all content, while others limit access to specific types, such as investigative journalism or limit your free access to maybe 10 articles per month. Behind the paywall, the usual third-party ads are eliminated, though ads sourced through a newspaper's own channels may still appear [source: Sweeney]. Results have been mixed. Some papers with paywalls have experienced massive drops in readership, while others have grown their online subscriptions enough to counter at least some of the decline in traditional advertising revenue [sources: Sweeney, Lazaroff].

What all of this means to the future of the newspaper industry remains to be seen, but it's clear a major transition is happening. The financial struggles and ultimate sale in 2013 of The Washington Post, one of the most prestigious newspapers in the U.S., highlights the difficulty in changing a newspaper culture that has remained fairly static for centuries. There are those who predict the obsolescence of the medium. For many news consumers, though, the professional, reliable and experienced reporting offered by traditional newspapers, even as they expand into nontraditional realms, is unchallenged by new, loosely monitored online organizations whose commitments to the facts have not yet been proved. To those consumers, obsolescence is out of the question.

Lots More Information

Sources

  • Associated Press. "Amazon founder Bezos to buy Washington Post." The San Bernadino County Sun Aug. 5, 2013. (Aug. 14, 2013) http://www.sbsun.com/general-news/20130805/amazon-founder-bezos-to-buy-washington-post
  • Brown, Merrill. "The Washington Post and Jeff Bezos' 'to do' list. CNBC. Aug. 12, 2013. (Aug. 14, 2013) http://www.cnbc.com/id/100956982
  • Lazaroff, Leon. "Memo to 'The Post's' Bezos: Newspaper Paywalls Work." The Street. Aug. 9, 2013. (Aug. 27, 2013) http://www.thestreet.com/story/12004481/1/memo-to-the-posts-bezos-newspaper-paywalls-work.html
  • The News & Observer. "Departments." (Aug. 14, 2013) http://www.newsobserver.com/departments/
  • Newspaper Association of America. "The American Newspaper Media Industry Revenue Profile 2012." April 8, 2013. (Aug. 14, 2013) http://www.naa.org/Trends-and-Numbers/Newspaper-Revenue/Newspaper-Media-Industry-Revenue-Profile-2012.aspx
  • Newspaper Association of America. "Newspaper Circulation Volume." Sept. 4, 2012. (Aug. 14, 2013) http://www.naa.org/Trends-and-Numbers/Circulation-Volume/Newspaper-Circulation-Volume.aspx
  • Sweeney, Mark. "News Corp reveals plan to boost advertising following paywall launch." The Guardian. Aug. 21, 2013. (Aug. 27, 2013) http://www.theguardian.com/media/2013/aug/21/news-corp-advertising-paywall-launch