Dec. 21, 2004
From hot type to the Digital Age, the publishing industry is a prime example of technology's power.

ETAISONHRDLUCMFWYPGBVKJQXZ. Don't try to pronounce it. It's not a word. What it is, is the rank order of the frequency with which each letter of the English alphabet is used. The letter "e," for example, is the most often-used, and "z" the least-often. In the early days of print media, the frequency with which a letter was used was an important production consideration. When I started my career in publishing back in 1946, Penton Press, my company's printing division, composed magazine pages with "cold-metal type." Each article was set letter by laborious letter by type-setting professionals called compositors. They plucked each letter from its compartmentalized niche in a wooden tray called a case. Each compartment in the case contained a supply of letters, grammatical symbols, and spacing type called ems and ens. The frequency with which each letter was used determined the size of its compartment in the case to provide the proper number of those letters required for each job. The letters and appropriate grammatical symbols were assembled in hand-held trays called sticks, then arranged into galleys, then into pages, and locked into steel chases of four, eight, or sixteen pages. This assembly work was done on a marble-topped table called a stone. When locked up, the chases were carried to flat-bed, reciprocating printing presses that printed the forms one sheet at a time. This tedious process became obsolete when Penton acquired Linotype machines. Linotypes had typewriter-type keyboards that collected letter molds that formed lines of type. Hot metal was poured into those molds to produce complete lines of lead type. These were then collected into galleys, formed into pages, locked into forms, and printed on flat-bed, reciprocating presses. With the development of high-speed rotary printing presses, type was now cast by Intertype machines into curved plates that could be locked onto the rotating cylinders of the rotary presses and printed on continuous rolls of paper instead of sheet by sheet. In the '60s Penton replaced its rotary, cast-metal-plate printing presses with higher-speed web offset presses. This eliminated type-setting with hot metal altogether and introduced word processors and photographic processes to printing. It also introduced etched printing plates that were produced photographically on thin, pliable offset printing plates. This process eliminated much of the drudge work from high production printing and, at the same time, added flexibility, speed, and length to print runs. It also made possible the practice of printing pages on both sides of a continuous roll of paper as it raced through stacked, multi-stand presses at awesome speeds of thousands of impressions per minute. By this time editors and reporters had replaced their typewriters and carbon paper with desk and lap-top computers and word processors. The age of desk-top publishing had arrived. Copy could be composed electronically. Artists and illustrators were also reenergized. They traded their drawing pencils, ink pots, and palettes for computer software that gave them new freedom to create better, faster, and less expensive art and color graphics electronically. Color printing became the norm rather than the exception, even in newspapers. I was a foot soldier in the early days of this publishing technology revolution. But I became a general during the war to convert Penton from the Stone Age of hand-set type into the Digital Age of electronic publishing. Today that revolution continues, reenergized by innovations such as networks, Web sites, and other computer ingenuity. Every print medium is now compelled by competitive pressures to offer electronic equivalents to its arsenal of editorial products or be out-informed by its competitors. Every media company today, whether its products are print, radio, television, or cable, now has an Internet clone. Where there was one medium, there are now at least two. Where there were hundreds, there are now thousands, even millions. And the communications cacophony continues. The wild whirl of printing press wheels are being supplemented by the tantalizing dance of photons. And the flood of information being poured into the eyes, ears, and noses of readers and listeners is as wondrous, as ominous, and as onerous as an out-of-control communications El Nio. Neoteny is the science of predicting how humans will look, act, and think in the future. Some believe our heads will be twice as large as they are today. Some imagine that we will have larger eyes and ears. That we won't reach middle age until the age of 60, and that we'll live 200 years. Let's hope that along with bigger heads, eyes, and ears, and longer life, we'll also have better brains. We'll need them to understand and interpret tomorrow's etaisonhrdlucmfwypgvbkjqxz. Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Media Inc. and an IW contributing editor. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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