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From AJR,   November 1998  issue

Newspapers Go Higher-Tech   

By Amy Wang
Amy Wang is a deputy editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer's Sunday magazine.     

Archaic computer systems, the millennium bug threat and the allure of the Internet have prompted a technological upheaval: Newspapers across the country are upgrading their equipment.

It might not sound like a big deal, but it's a lucrative one. In 1998, newspapers plan to spend $1 billion on technology alone, according to the most recent statistics of the Newspaper Association of America. This year, the prospect of such an investment lured about 49 makers of newspaper editorial systems to NEXPO, the association's annual trade show. "We believe that the market for replacement systems is going to grow far in excess of 50 percent from 1997 to 1998, and we believe that there'll be some additional growth in that beyond 1998," says Allen Miller, vice president of marketing for Atex Media Solutions, a key player in the computer market.

One reason vendors see a surge in business is simple obsolescence. Early editorial computer systems appeared in the 1970s--think Atex, CSI and Hendrix (later renamed Hastech)--and two decades later, they're on their last electrons. That was the case at Colorado Springs' Gazette, which started switching 130 newsroom employees from CSI to Unisys in April 1997.

"The age of the CSI system was a primary driving force," says Gary Burns, a former Gazette news editor. "It was basically running out of capacity."

Newsroom managers, who had several systems patchworked into a quilt of technology, also wanted to streamline production. "To have a blend of color pagination and manual pagination and Macintosh pages in one setup is really darn confusing, and I think ultimately kind of counterproductive," Burns says.

Gannett and Thomson cite another explanation for harnessing new technology: the coding glitch known as the millennium or Y2K bug, which may cause many computers to misread the date 2000 and render them inoperable or inaccurate in their calculations.

"The Year 2000 issue creates an obvious need for replacement," says Bernie Szachara, director/imaging integration at Gannett, the largest U.S. newspaper group. "Upon investigation a site realizes, 'Geez, we can really gain a lot by replacing an aging system.' So we get sort of a double-whammy effect." He estimates that 75 to 80 of Gannett's 89 newspapers will have replaced or at least upgraded publishing systems before the year 2000.

Thomson Newspapers, with roughly 4,800 computers at 119 sites for its dailies, weeklies and bureaus, has ordered complete replacements or upgrades throughout the company, "piggybacking Y2K with the need to upgrade technology," says Gretchen Blake, Year 2000 project manager.

One of the toughest Y2K issues Thomson is grappling with, Blake says, is how to function if an entire department's computers shut down. "We're having to work through, 'How do you go around that and go back to doing it manually?' "

Blake stresses the necessity of a smooth transition to the next millennium. "When it comes to that weekend of January 1, 2000, the worst-case scenario is that TV stations go down because they're tied into satellites," she says. "Then people are going to depend on the radio and the newspaper, so it's crucial that we get this out."

An additional factor in the technology rush is the Internet itself, valuable to newspapers both as a tool for staff and as a place to hang out a shingle. Desktop Internet access for all reporters and editors doesn't seem to be the standard yet, according to Scott Sigler, marketing associate at Baseview Products, which has 2,500 newspaper clients worldwide. But, he says, most newspapers at least set up research terminals.

Meanwhile, building Web sites at newspapers is becoming a big business, Sigler says. "We have a lot of software that automates the procedures, so once the site is built, the content moves over there every day automatically. There's a lot of branding going on; small papers want to make sure that their brand name is out there on the Internet, and they want to establish themselves as the source for local news."

Of course, all this computer advancement comes with a price. Bill Stroud, U.S. director of publishing solutions for Unisys Corp., estimates a cost of $9,000 to $11,000 a terminal for software and server costs only. Blake says Thomson Newspapers has budgeted $9 million for expenses involved in revamping current equipment.

And not all the costs are financial. When New York's Rochester Democrat and Chronicle converted to all digital cameras with installation of its new press last year, photographers were apprehensive about giving up equipment that had become "instinctive," says Managing Editor Carolyn Washburn.

Washburn promotes a deliberate, carefully considered approach to revamping a newspaper's computer wares.

"Just because the technology changes doesn't mean you have to change with it," she says. "But the benefits--if you start out in the right way, doing rigorous research, rigorous training--the benefits are incredible."