Objective: deadline

20 Nov

We don’t yell at the Tribune. We’re a light-and-reason, left-leaning sort of paper, and authority in its conventional guise doesn’t sit well with us. You can tell that the moment you get in the newsroom and look around: the older journalists are wearing Hush Puppies, the younger ones Converses. There’s not a suit in sight. If you’re an editor or in management, you wear a nice shirt and roll your sleeves up to indicate purpose; for the rest of us, an obscure band T-shirt and some reasonably clean jeans will do.*

So if a puce-faced deputy editor with his tie askew were to go effing and  blinding up and down the aisle as another deadline slid out of reach with the splash turn not fitting and the 300-worder for page 7 still stuck in desk, it just wouldn’t work.  Imagine how little a collection of liberal professionals who seek out truculent indie music, dress 10 years younger than their age and choose – actively choose – to live in north London would be impressed by the sight of a man in a suit trying to exercise “authority”. Exactly: not much.

So does that create a few problems with timekeeping? Well, yes and no. As print sales have fallen and internet traffic has risen, the pressure on deadlines has actually decreased slightly. Our giant, bespoke print works in east London was designed with print runs 30% or 40% bigger than the current ones in mind, and on some days during the week we don’t even need to run both the presses simultaneously (and nor, in truth, do we need to absolutely nail the deadline).

But that’s not true on Saturday: Saturday is a big day. The magazine has been finished earlier in the week, and the pre-printed feature sections go offstone on a Thursday, but still, the combination of higher circulation and  more pages means the printers need a lot of time, so the Friday deadline is a full 90 minutes earlier than it is on the weekday editions.

And we miss it. Boy, do we miss it. Take a look at this: it’s the daily report from the pre-press manager – the human interface between the newsroom and the printing works – after a particularly grim night earlier this year:

Screen shot 2013-11-18 at 17.58.44

Look at the third line: that shows how punctual we were for every edition. Look at the time for “1ST”. Don’t be fooled by the (+Mins) key: it’s not saying we were just under two minutes late. If only. What it’s saying is that it was a  full 1 hour and 58 minutes after deadline before we managed to send the last page. On the busiest day of the week, with the printers itching to start on a long and financially critical night, we missed the target by one hundred and eighteen minutes. Some feature films could have started and finished in that time.

And then look what happened after that: the printers couldn’t start until 10 o’clock; the web broke (that is, one of the giant rolls of paper tore) and a sensor failed on a press at the London works (or “GPC”, as it’s known);  the web also broke, less seriously, at our northern press in Manchester (“GPC N”); then the big truck with all the copies for Peterborough and Newmarket broke down, and they had to send two smaller trucks and a van out to retrieve the situation.

Long before I became interested in news, I was interested in newspapers: specifically I was fascinated that the fat bundle that I would pick up in the living room as a child had been written, edited, printed and delivered all in one day. I couldn’t really believe that it happened like that. Some nights, as we see, it almost doesn’t.

After a few more terrible Fridays, it seemed that things had gone far enough. By that time in the week, I have finished my duties on the daily paper and am starting my first shift on the Tribune’s Sunday edition – a mammoth, multi-day undertaking of its own – So I’m gratefully spared the Saturday-edition rush. But from the other side of the building, I sensed change was afoot.

The weekend duty editor had always sent round an encouraging Friday email, reminding desks, writers and subs of the early deadline and jollying everyone along to keep things moving. But after spring, he got more serious. The tone changed. Not to become shouty, admonitory or hectoring, of course: that wouldn’t work. Instead, he turned to his calmness-and-sweet-reason workforce and started to spell out, with calmness and ruthlessly sweet reason, what the new regime would be and why. This, he explained, was what would be happening in future:

  • All pages should be offstone by 7pm.
  • It is recognised that one or two breaking news pages may need longer and should be offstone by 7.30pm.
  • The front page and linked news pages should be away by 7.45pm.
  • In exceptional circumstances we can go up to 8pm, but NOT A MINUTE OVER.
  • The fact that we can, in exceptional circumstances, send a page at 8pm does NOT mean we can send half the book at 8pm. A steady flow of pages to pre-press is essential throughout the afternoon and early evening or we are doomed.
  • This is what happens if we DON’T meet our new, tighter print schedule:
• We have to rustle up extra vans to get the paper to wholesalers and this incurs hefty additional and unplanned costs.
• We miss delivery slots from wholesalers to retailers, which incurs the high cost of putting on extra vans.
• We lose sales because our paper arrives late at retailers – especially early-morning sales and those at major travel hubs which are key drivers of circulation.
• There is a knock-on effect on later editions as there is no time to stop the presses to get in late breaking stories. This makes us look rubbish and amateur compared to our competitors.
• We don’t get to start our weekends when we should.

And suddenly, there was nowhere to turn. Rather than being kept in the dark and admonished vaguely from on high, we were briefed point by point – and, suddenly, made partially responsible – for the whole enterprise. You may not be able to appeal to a bunch of leftie journalists’ sense of obedience, but you can most certainly appeal to their consciences. And, slowly and painfully, it started to work.

Next Saturday’s paper wasn’t exactly on time, but there were clear signs of improvement. Off-stone delays fell to under an hour. One week, a decent editorial performance was followed by a night of disaster at the printers and we struggled to make deliveries at all, but the Saturday editor took that opportunity to drive home the reason why punctuality was so important: because not all the slack in the schedule belongs to us. Even when the paper got bigger, unexpectedly stuffed with adverts over the summer, we pushed and sweated and came close.

And then, last week, the Saturday editor sent round this email:

Good afternoon
Last week’s record 62-page paper – which we thought couldn’t get any bigger – will be eclipsed by a monster 64-pager tomorrow.
To complicate matters, England play Chile at Wembley (ko 8pm) and Sport must change several pages for second edition which will be hampered if the presses are still wrestling with first edition.
So, more than ever before, we need to get off on time with a GOOD FLOW OF PAGES
Getting the paper off on time does not mean sending every page at 7pm. Each page takes three minutes to be turned into a plate for the presses – hence 60 pages will take three hours to process. It’s not an option to send them all at once.
So, early copy, fast production and early pages are ESSENTIAL if we are to get the paper off in a timely fashion.

I bumped into one of the Saturday layout subs in the canteen at lunch, looking slightly ashen. He, like me, wasn’t even aware that we could print 62 pages in one go, let alone 64: we both thought the absolute limit was 60. And never mind just the pressure on the delivery vans: if it went wrong, we’d miss  getting the football in the paper, and a good England result can add tens of thousands to  circulation.

We parted ways, clutching our sandwiches.  I plunged into a large Sunday business section and forgot to wonder what was happening on the other side. It wasn’t until Saturday morning, when I got in and opened my email, that it occurred to me to look. How had it gone in the end?

Screen shot 2013-11-18 at 19.09.33

Offstone delays: first: none. Second: 5 minutes. Third: none. Fourth: none. Press downtime in London: none. Press downtime in Manchester: 20 minutes. All services: met.

The time is soon coming, of course, when the tiny daily triumph of print news – that tenuous logistical chain that starts on a reporter’s laptop in Caracas and finishes with a van pulling up outside a newsagent in Peterborough – will be gone. The internet collects, processes and distributes information far faster than even TV and radio, and doesn’t need a three-storey-high printing press and a fleet of 38-tonners to do it. Kim Fletcher, in a recent BBC radio series on the press, likened the age of newspapers to the age of steam: charismatic, romantic and exciting to look back on, but simply too dirty, slow and expensive for today.

He’s right. The web is the future. But I work on both, and the new just isn’t as much fun as the old. I’m glad I got in before the end of print. As the Tribune’s former sports editor used to say: “At least we got to drive the steam engine for a while.”

And when you can make it run to timetable, that’s the most fun of all.

 * There was a useful guide for Fleet Street freelancers circulating a few years ago, offering practical tips for new starters  the desk: where to go, how to sign in, what to wear, and so on. The entry for the Tribune read: “Dress code: casual, bordering on slovenly.”

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6 Responses to “Objective: deadline”

  1. Picky November 26, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

    Fascinating stuff, but I’m on the side of the missing swearing perspiring deputy editor. I cut my teeth on an eight-edition evening where anything more than two or three minutes late required an explanation. Causing the press to start late made wrath roll back through the organisation like thunder. Causing the press to be an hour late … well, I can’t even imagine that, although I am confident that the resultant discussion with the deputy editor would have been terminal.

    Later I came in contact with sloppy subs’ tables and (of course) even sloppier news desks, but I’ve never understood why a bunch of reasonably intelligent people should require it to be explained frequently and in simple terms that being late to market equals lost sales.

    • edlatham November 26, 2013 at 3:19 pm #

      You’re absolutely right. But I wonder if the number of subsequent editions in prospect might have something to do with it? We don’t do anything like eight editions (yikes); indeed the Mon-Sat Tribune goes to press at 8.30 and usually only puts out one further omnibus edition at midnight. But the Sunday Tribune bangs out five editions every week starting at 6pm, and timekeeping there is generally much better.

  2. Picky November 26, 2013 at 4:09 pm #

    Yes, you may have something, both because one needs to start work on the later edition so one just has to get shot of the current one, and because there is the temptation to think “Oh well, no time to do that update for this edition but never mind, there’s another coming along”. The other thing is that I think evening papers have always had (by which I’m afraid I really mean “used to have”) a stronger culture of speed than national dailies, perhaps because their readers are closer, both geographically and in time terms: there is a street seller round the corner waiting for those papers that are rolling off the press, not a newsagent a hundred miles away who’s not out of bed yet.

    • edlatham November 26, 2013 at 4:35 pm #

      Yes, it must be a powerful motivator if you can actually hear someone outside the window still shouting ‘PM EXTRA!’ when they should be shouting ‘NIGHT FINAL!’

      • Picky November 26, 2013 at 5:06 pm #

        Worse than that. Can you imagine this? It’s a winter Saturday and we’re about to pass the last page of our Green ‘Un or Pink ‘Un or whatever it was. It’s not very long after 5 o’clock. In the paper are reports and pictures from that afternoon’s game involving the town’s professional soccer team; reports from about a dozen of the top local non-league teams’ games; a report from the local top rugby match; (all this received take by take over the phone from freezing reporters at the grounds, the poor wee bylined souls); a roundup of the national matches and updated league tables. Outside our offices the street is full of people who’ve walked up from the town’s stadium having watched the big game. They mass in their hundreds outside our front door every Saturday home game to buy the paper and see what we say about what they already know. Every minute we are late they are stamping their frozen feet and cursing us. We would do well to get that press running.

      • edlatham November 26, 2013 at 6:29 pm #

        Wow! Hardly any need for a puce-faced deputy editor!

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