(Paper presented by Roy Mathew, Special Correspondent, The Hindu, Thiruvananthapuram 695008, Kerala, India, at the National Seminar on Emerging Trends in Science and Technology, organised in connection with Diamond Jubilee Celebrations of the University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram, on September 25, 1998. )
Journalism has been going through several major technological changes during the past few decades. The pace of these changes is quickening now, altering the practice of the profession as never before. These changes, which encompass a wide range of activities from news gathering to dissemination, are bringing many benefits. At the same time, the profession faces some negative impacts too.
As you know, the print revolution started with the invention of printing by Johann Gutenberg in the fourteenth century. The next important development was the arrival of telegraph. Many of twentieth century's scoops were transmitted over telegraph and telex lines. The telephones brought in a fast means for the reporter to gather information. However, it was not used much for actual transmission of news as vocal communication was more prone to errors. (I am not forgetting its wider use by reporters working in vernacular language newspapers for dictating news). The telephone, incidentally, gave the inspiration for radio. Parallel to these developments was the evolution of photography, motion picture photography and television.
Computers have now brought about major changes to the scenario. The way reporters gathered and disseminated news is changing. Photography is on a threshold with the arrival of digital cameras. Internet is emerging as a medium of mass communication. That brings in fresh competition to other media, even forcing changes in content.
It is to be remembered that none of the tools used by journalism is its own domain. But in every case, journalism brought in an added dimension and character. Internet began as medium for sharing information among military establishments and research institutions. Now, it is increasingly being identified by the common man as a news medium, as it happened with radio and television.
The second half of the twentieth century saw the emergence of transmission of newspaper pages by fax and the inauguration of photocomposing. The Japanese had started using facsimile transmission of the newspaper pages early in the fifties. THE HINDU was the first newspaper to introduce facsimile editions in India. Some newspapers like Malayala Manorama adopted this technology several years later. Others altogether skipped this phase of technology and jumped to computer based transmission of pages in the nineties.
Prior to these developments, monotype had given way to Linotype in larger newspapers. Hot metal composition, which was common in the seventies, was tedious and time consuming. The average output on a Linotype machine was about 200 (newspaper column) lines per hour. There was an inherent restriction on the speed of the operator as molten lead is cast into lines.
Photocomposing, which arrived in the seventies, removed the tedium of the operator to a large extent and restrictions on his speed. The early photocomposing units installed by THE HINDU could compose 1000 lines per minute. Now, nobody talks of speed in composing. The only speeds worth considering now are the speed of the operator and the speed of transferring the made up page on to film (which is just a few minutes). Whole newspaper pages can now be sent across continents in a matter of minutes. This is being facilitated by high speed modems, fibre optic cables and satellite links. The last page being readied for an edition— that is, the front page carrying the late breaking news, can reach the press from the pagination room in less than ten minutes. The latest web offset printing presses for newspapers can print at the rate of about one lakh copies per hour.
While the high end technologies for printing became more complex, a new dimension to publishing was added by the personal computer. The computer made it possible to publish material from the desktop. Thus, publication of a lot of new material became feasible. Now, one can publish small booklets or magazines without worrying about the costs and large scale circulation. The page making can now be done even from your home. Thus, you can publish something with small investments. The whole equipment would cost you only a few lakh rupees, and the power of publishing is in your hands. (You have to use the services of an outside printing press, if you want a good number of copies).
The distinguishing feature of this technology is that it can bring about quality very closer to those achieved by larger presses. Almost all the typesetting features and tools needed to bring out well designed publications are available in latest DTP programs for the personal computer. They can handle graphics and pictures with ease. Accompanying programs like PhotoShop can enhance the quality of your photographs. And programs like CorelDRAW offer unlimited graphic and design opportunities. Type alignment has become so easy that you take it for granted. (Once, this was being done manually!)
As I said earlier, the low end and high end technologies in typesetting and page make up are now closer than a decade ago. A small as well as large publication would need only personal computers to make the page. Definitely, the latter would need more of them, organised into a local area network or intranet, with much more disk space and other resources. On the software side, the features available on the Champion system used by THE HINDU and the PageMaker used by a local desktop publisher in Thiruvananthapuram are not much different. What the local man lacks is the Linotronic printer that can transfer the made up page on to photographic film for plate making. This situation may also change if service providers with Linotronic printers get established as in the West. In future, it would be possible for the desktop publisher to hand over floppy disks containing his pages to the presses which will have Linotronic printers.
The entry of computers into typesetting was not without any casualties. The computers almost displaced a band of traditional typesetters, impositors and lay out artists who rightly prided in their work. They were men who practised type setting and layout as an art, strictly adhering to rules of their profession. The computer operators who replaced them were adept in handling the machine and the programs, but lacked knowledge about niceties of typesetting. As there was a divide between the old and the new generation, the fine art of typesetting was not passed on to the new generation by the old guard in full. Though most of the old typesetters were trained in the use of computers in several organisations so as to avoid retrenchments, most of them never acquired full mastery of the new medium. Many were just using the computer in a mechanical manner and looking forward to their retirement. As a result of this, now one finds the new comers breaking rules, that were considered sacrosanct by the old guard, with impunity. Some of them have not even heard of things like grid alignment. Many of them manipulate line spacing without discipline and entirely leave spacing between words and justification to the machine. Though the typesetters now have the added power to manipulate features like kerning, many of today's typesetters do not have the skill or inclination to try them.
Scalable fonts available on computers have opened up possibilities that the old generation of typesetters could never dream of. The freedom of the old compositors to chose point sizes was limited by the choices available in their composing room. Now, the computers will create any point size for you. And a large number of fonts are available as never before.
The machine, however, had brought in certain limitations on page design. With some of the early software, there were difficulties in achieving text flow into L-shaped or T-shaped designs. Defining of rectangular design elements, on the other hand, was easy. Thus, L-shaped and T-shaped text lay out became rare in newspapers using computer typesetting and rectangular blocks dominated. The new techniques also led to newspapers gradually abandoning vertical and horizontal page make up in favour of modular design. The transition was often through designs that were neither this nor that.
It is only a matter of years before digital cameras are widely used by the photojournalists. It will free the photojournalist from dark room processing and time consuming manipulations with the enlarger. Wet processing is bound to become a thing of the past, if digital cameras achieve the resolution of films. This may happen any time now. Pictures would reach the newsroom from the photographer in a matter of seconds through telephone lines or wireless. The picture editor can do a quick adjustment of brightness and contrast besides cropping on the computer. And the picture would reach the page in a matter of minutes. If the editor has time, he can use an array of tools available on computer programs like PhotoShop, to improve the picture in many ways. The possibilities are endless.
A picture is worth a thousand words. This old saying will continue to be true. However, the credibility of the thousand words would now be held in doubt from the day you go in for computer manipulation of images. (It is inevitable that you will.) Some years back, I reported on a case of the Forest Department employing children for work in their nurseries near Kallar in Thiruvananthapuram district in violation of several laws. I had seen the children working, and the report was carried by THE HINDU which enjoyed a high degree of credibility. Despite that, the Forest Minister denied it on the floor of the Assembly. He said that the children were there with their mothers who were actually the ones working there. (The payments were being made in the name of their mothers.) Next day, we carried a follow up showing an overview of the nursery with the caption that no mothers were around. The children were seen working with shovels. Only two grown ups were amidst them. That was evidence which cannot be easily refuted. Even a newspaper with low credibility could use such a picture to prove its point. But the situation has changed now. If mothers are present in such a picture today, they could be easily edited out using latest image processing technology. The background can be changed and the number of children increased, if needed. The credibility of a picture will now dependent on the credibility of the newspaper and the photojournalist. In other words, the credibility of a photograph would be the same as that of the printed word. Thus, the profession losses the strength of one of its tools as capabilities of the tool are enlarged by modern technology.
Besides, the wide scope for manipulation of pictures now throws up several ethical issues. This would range from issues like whether an electric line in the foreground or a disturbing background could be edited out to whether one could change the appearance of a person. Many would countenance the editing out of a disturbing background or the like, but what about editing out distances or the like. Some time back, a newspaper published a picture of a policeman running after a few demonstrators with a lathi. The distance between the policeman and the `victims' was drastically cut through computer manipulations. This gave a better effect. Instead of a picture of a policeman chasing away some demonstrators, it looked as if the policeman was about to hit one of them. Is this ethical? In the past also, use of telephoto lenses tended to shrink distances. This was something known to many and they could arrive at a correct assessment of the distances. However, now the situation has reached an unacceptable extreme. Unlike in the case of telephoto lenses, the reader may not be able to guess that the picture has been electronically manipulated. This is true of video footage also.
Similarly, photo finishing, including touching of the negatives, was used by photographers for many decades to improve portraits. Now, there is no limit to how far one can improve or damage a portrait. One can even strip a person of his or her cloths. Where would one set the limits?
Similarly, a sub-editor handling the copy of a novice may need to bring an important point buried deep in the story to the top. Now, he can do it with a few strokes of keys. The word processor also provides many other features useful to the journalist which I do not hazard to list here. But, one facility which needs special mention is the ability of word processors to insert other files in the copy. Files can be easily combined and material from archives inserted into the body.
Maintenance and retrieval of material from newspaper morgues (for those unfamiliar with the term, "the morgue is where we keep obituaries of living people, especially the famous ones, until they are dead". But nowadays, many other things are also kept in the morgue) have become easier and quicker with electronic medium. The archives can be easily searched and retrieved material incorporated into copy. It is time that every publisher of newspapers and magazines worth the name has an electronic equivalent of a morgue.
Word processing and archiving have also brought in its own evils, or better say, devils. Most publications have practically abandoned proof-reading, leaving the job to spell check engines of word processors. But spell check engines have their own limitations. It will not flag a spelling mistake if spelling is wrong only in the current context. For example, the engine would pass the word if you type `their' where `there' is needed. A more dreaded mistake in publishing like `public' getting printed without the `l' can also go unnoticed this way.
Besides, many of word processors on sale in India use American spelling while we follow British spelling. The result is often a mix up of both American and British spelling. The spell check machine, as you know, can replace the wrongly spelled word with the correctly spelled word. It will, however, flag a correct word as misspelled, it the word is not in its dictionary. And sub editors may hit the key for replacement without applying the mind. The result of all this is a newspaper with more printer's devils than in the past. And the printer is innocent of the crime. Most of the printer's devils have been ostracised by photocomposing. A p or d will not be upside down anymore. But new devils have taken possession of publishing.
Easy access to archives and the capability to insert material from the archives without retyping is tempting many reporters to use archive material without rewriting. While this may be okay with material like biodata, it would not look that nice elsewhere. Owing to easy access to archives, reporters would be depending on them rather than scouting for the information afresh. Over dependence on archived reports can result in repetition of errors committed in earlier reports. However, the balance is in favour of archives. Reference to past events and issues in the archives will help to avoid more mistakes than it is likely to cause. Reporters will also be able to add much more background and depth to their reports through use of archives.
Newspapers used to be considered one day wonders that are discarded the next day. Except for researchers and their ilk, few would be searching back issues of newspapers. But this has changed with the availability of searchable newspapers, back issues and archives on the Internet. And this has increased the responsibility of all working behind newspapers. They are more likely to be hauled up for a mistake committed years ago than ever before. More than mere mistakes, one may find reports contradicting each other in the same newspaper, if one scans through a longer period of reportage by different reporters. No doubt, that can be very embarrassing for the newspapers and reporters. However, more at risk will be the politicians. They can be easily caught for their contradictory statements.
Tomorrow, reporters may be dictating their stories on the field to computers capable of recognising voice and transmitting them instantaneously to their offices. While the electronic media is sure to embrace such a technology, it is doubtful whether print journalists would welcome it. There are limitations in composing long and detailed stories using voice. (I am not forgetting that there were writers who used to dictate long articles to their assistants). However, the technology will be ideal for radio. The reporter's voice could be directly broadcast or converted into print outs and read by the news reader, according to the requirements of the newsroom. Voice recognition is already here. However, the technology would take some more time to mature. There is also the possibility of blurring of the distinction between various media in the near future. The same newsroom would be producing the print and online editions of the newspaper and news broadcasts over radio, cable and television. This process has already begun. At least one newspaper in the United States has an integrated newsroom. In India, the print and online editions of newspapers share resources.
In many countries, press hand outs are now being issued through electronic bulletin boards and the Internet. Thus, it is now possible to release information simultaneously across continents. Journalists can dial up and get the information any time after it has been posted. Bulletin boards can be of real help if used while managing calamities and other incidents. If authorities like the police keep on posting information as and when they become available on bulletin boards, they can avoid answering a lot of telephone calls from reporters.
The bulletin board and the Internet are among the new sources and tools that have become available to the journalist with the development of computer networking. These sources can be broadly classified as electronic sources of information. Perhaps the most important among them, on account of reliability, is the electronic databases. The new tools include E-mail, telnet, Internet browsers and search engines.
A large number of information systems are now available on a wide variety of subjects. This makes it possible for the journalists to obtain authentic information on specialised subjects. Specialisation was the in thing in journalism in the recent past. However, the importance of specialisation would diminish in the coming years as quick access to large pools information, on almost everything under the sun, is available through networks. It would now be possible for a journalist with good general knowledge and common sense to write stories relating to almost any field for the general public, provided that he is willing to learn some fundamentals of science, economics, commerce and other subjects.
The Internet also offers vast amount of information useful to journalists. However, much of the material on the Internet could not be considered reliable. (Generally, Gopher sites have more reliable information than world wide Web sites). There is also the possibility of Internet sites or files disappearing without trace. This could become a problem if the material is controversial. In fact, the several ethical questions are being thrown up about sourcing stories from the Internet. I am not detailing them here as it is not within the scope of this discussion.
The E-mail opens up wider vistas for the journalist to contact experts and other sources, and also for in-house communication. Journalists working from a location can now easily reach out to experts in other parts of country or even abroad to gather information and check facts. Most of the scientific institutions in India and Collectorates are now connected by E-mail. The only problem is that many here are not in the habit of checking their mail daily. Some are afraid of the cost of replying.
The discussion lists and usenet news groups also offer additional fora for the journalists to collect information. The media generally reflect the opinions of the elite and not the common man. Reporters usually look for opinions from politicians, opinion leaders from various professions and experts, except for occasional forays for interviewing the man on the street for his opinions on the budget or the like. The reason for this is not often the reporter's antipathy for the opinion of the common man but the difficulty in identifying the man on the street with worthwhile opinion. Discussion lists and news groups, when it becomes common here also, will remove this difficulty to a great extent. Reporters can subscribe to discussion lists or "lurk" relevant news groups to gauge the opinions of the general public. There are also cases of journalists posing questions and gathering responses. Several discussion lists exist which cater to various professional interests of journalists. Some of them help journalists in the use of electronic sources.
Even if you want to maintain an independent Web site with a direct link to the Internet backbone, the costs are very low compared to the kind of money you would need to set up a press and distribute your publication. Besides, the costs for publishing additional pages are marginal. (With print media, production and distribution costs would increase substantially, when pages or distribution volumes are increased).
The Internet now has more than 6600 electronic editions of commercial newspapers and magazines printed in English. The number of newspapers on line went up from around 1100 in 1996 to more than 2500 this year. The figures include 22 Indian newspapers and 40 Indian magazines in English. Some vernacular newspapers and magazines too have their presence on the Internet. The number of college magazines and non-commercial publications on the Internet is much higher and is multiplying every year. Some commercial Web newspapers (news sites) and magazines (e-zines) are offered for a subscription. Others distribute them free and manage the business with advertisement revenues.
Some journalists do run their own publications on the Internet in the West. If one's site is good enough, one will attract readers as well as advertisers. As the Internet is still not past its infancy, the opportunities offered by it are only beginning to bloom. In the West, some important news breaks and investigative reports have been published by journalists operating single-handedly. Some newsletters specialising in certain subjects are being distributed through E-mail. While many of them are distributed free of charge, some manage to collect subscriptions.
Internet is sure to emerge as major source of news in the coming years, though it may not displace any of the established media in the near future. The ability to combine text, voice and pictures gives added strength to Internet as a medium. Though Internet could not yet transmit long videos efficiently, convergence of various media, in a certain sense, is round the corner. Yet the text on the computer screen will not be a 100 per cent substitute for the printed matter. However, the impact of the Internet revolution, will be much higher than the print revolution in terms of published material. Internet publications would multiply like anything. It is no more many voices and one world, as the famous UNESCO publication (Many Voices, One World, Sean MacBride, International Commission for Study of Communication Problems, UNESCO, Paris) put it; but millions of voices (sites) and one cyber world.
Koch, Tom (1991): Journalism for the 21st Century: Online Information, Electronic Databases and the News; New York, Praeger.
Reddick, R. & King, E. (1995). The Online Journalist: Using the Internet and other Electronic Resources. Orlando: Harcourt Brace.