The evolving newsroom operation in Indian newspapers

From manual pasting to automated layouts

A file photo of the Hindustan Times newsroom in Delhi. Newsroom workflow in newspapers has dramatically evolved over the years.

Needless to say, newsroom workflow in newspapers has dramatically evolved over the years. And I have been through some of it. Back in the end-90s, when I started, the workflow would be something like this. The desk would get handwritten news reports and printouts of agency feeds. The desk would edit these with notes and correction symbols. The reports would be then typed by a dedicated team on shared computers – vintage machines that would find a place only in a tech museum now – for output on bromide paper by a computerized typesetting system.

After a second look, the fresh typeset printouts would go to the proofreading desk. The final printouts in A4 size, along with suggested headlines, would then be pasted on a big layout sheet – a template almost the size of an actual newspaper – by a team of ‘pasters’ or ‘layout artists’ under the surveillance of the page editors. Space was kept for contextual or standalone photographs, which came as glossy or plain paper prints late in the evening. After further corrections by the team leaders and another set of prints, the final pages would be manually sent to the press for scanning and plate making. All in all a mind-boggling and tedious process,

Our seniors then would tell us that this workflow was quite advanced compared to the earlier days when there were no computers and metal rotary plates and the metal typesetting method ruled. This was followed by the computerized typesetting of columns or galleys on bromide paper that were then pasted on the full-page template.

Cut to 2023 and all this would sound like a period film to many. Today, many of the processes have become highly advanced, the ‘layout artists,’ the compositors, and proofreaders are no longer there, and the desk and reporting functions have merged in many segments such as sport, features – and even news in digital media.

Gone are the days when the page editor would manually draw a layout and assign or flow in or paste stories on the page. These days, in many newsrooms, page layout has attained a great degree of automation. Newer software ensures the desk gets multiple, ready-made page layout options.

These are the days of content management systems – one combo interface where copy is filed, edited, and assigned to a page, and photographs are uploaded and scanned or simply sized and retouched since the widespread use of digital cameras and downloads. Pages are made, and ads are assigned and sent directly, after quality checks by the pre-press teams, to the printing locations, which may be in multiple cities, as print-ready PDF files.

With the help of the available technology, the same team that used to make, say, 10 pages in the bygone era can now make 18-20 pages – and in much less time. And we are not even factoring in AI, which is yet to find its way to Indian newsrooms.

The operations have undergone a revolution through decades but apart from news, one aspect binds both ages – newsroom dynamics, and the human touch. However technologically advanced a CMS or a layout system may be, the still highly dynamic nature of newspapers in India means the stories on a page as well as its layout may keep on changing till the eleventh hour – defeating the very purpose of automation.

A long story that was published online and assigned to a page may be relegated to a snippet or brief at the last moment. A page that was designed to fit five big-sized stories may have to squeeze in six to seven medium-sized stories, a couple of single columns plus a brief column and graphic. Or a breaking story may send the pages for a toss just when they are about to be fired to the press.

So, finding that preferred dummy page at that last moment via the suggested layouts becomes the second preference. A holding photograph that comes via the auto scanner may not have the right hues and may have to be manually scanned or even retouched. Plus, the software does not auto-fit stories on the page. A story has to be edited to fit on the page without losing its essence – by editors. All these require humans.

New technology has ensured that the newsroom or desk operations in newspapers have become smoother and faster than ever before. But no technology can beat the human element – at least in our lifetime.

2023 promises an interesting ride for print in India

Indian Printer and Publisher founded in 1979 is the oldest B2B trade publication in the multi-platform and multi-channel IPPGroup. While the print and packaging industries have been resilient in the past 33 months since the pandemic lockdown of 25 March 2020, the commercial printing and newspaper industries have yet to recover their pre-Covid trajectory.

The fragmented commercial printing industry faces substantial challenges as does the newspaper industry. While digital short-run printing and the signage industry seem to be recovering a bit faster, ultimately their growth will also be moderated by the progress of the overall economy. On the other hand book printing exports are doing well but they too face several supply-chain and logistics challenges.

The price of publication papers including newsprint has been high in the past year while availability is diminished by several mills shutting down their publication paper and newsprint machines in the past four years. Indian paper mills are also exporting many types of paper and have raised prices for Indian printers. To some extent, this has helped in the recovery of the digital printing industry with its on-demand short-run and low-wastage paradigm.

Ultimately digital print and other digital channels will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future. For instance, there is no alternative to a rise in textbook consumption but this segment will only reach normality in the next financial year beginning on 1 April 2023.

Thus while the new normal is a moving target and many commercial printers look to diversification, we believe that our target audiences may shift and change. Like them, we will also have to adapt with agility to keep up with their business and technical information needs.

Our 2023 media kit is ready, and it is the right time to take stock and reconnect with your potential markets and customers. Print is the glue for the growth of liberal education, new industry, and an emerging economy. We seek your participation in what promises to be an interesting ride.

– Naresh Khanna

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