I remember my first days at Prison Service News (PSN) well. I had just joined as assistant editor of the staff newspaper for 33,000 prison officers in England and Wales.
I was part of a new team of three. Our brief – to modernise the paper, make it more user friendly and focus on issues of staff, rather than management, concern. There was also one other area where PSN was to be modernised – in the way it was produced.
I arrived with an excellent knowledge of page layout and design using QuarkXpress on a Mac. But, when I arrived PSN used traditional page layout. I found myself struggling to learn all the old techniques of manually working out words per column inch based on font, size and leading. We had to manually work out how much space our photographs would take up on the page. All our copy, photographs and page layout instructions were then sent off to a printers in Tamworth. They would then try and fit what we had given them into a tabloid style newspaper layout.
Needless to say, the final days before print sign-off were a nightmare. One or sometimes two whole days were spent up in Tamworth, editing text on the go as the printers worked to fit all our text and pictures into the pages, as the paper was finalised before printing.
To be honest, I was well out of my comfort zone. Even though I had worked on local papers as a reporter previously, I had never had any experience of page layout and design ‘the old way’. My editor, a perfectly amiable if slightly eccentric chap, tried his best to teach me. But calculating words per column inch, square inch values for photographs and approximating the space required for headlines and sub-heads defeated me.
About six months into the job manna from heaven arrived. Three shiny new Apple Macs were delivered to our offices, complete with Quark and an A3 printer. After six months of feeling like the office dunce I was in my element. Almost immediately I began to layout the pages I was responsible for on the Mac.
My status in the office changed too. Even though I was the most junior member of staff, my two senior colleagues were now seeking my advice on what to do on their Macs. Over the next few months, as we all got more familiar with the new software, we began laying out the pages ourselves, and simply handed the printer floppy disks (remember them?) with our page layouts. It was so much simpler, so much more efficient. And, more importantly for me, so much more creative to have control over my own pages.
That was 16 years ago. Over the years desk top publishing has revolutionised the design and printing industries. Those who were able to learn how to use the new technologies survived and prospered. Yet, there were many who, unable to make the change, fell by the wayside. Designers and printers went out of business in their droves. The printing presses that were used barely 20 years ago are now museum pieces – consigned to history.
It is remarkable how many revolutions have taken place in the communications industry over the last two decades. The explosion of the internet and social networking, e-mail, mobile phones and text messaging, smart phones offering e-mail and internet on the move, satellite and cable television offering hundreds of channels, digital radio plus many others.
The next revolution is on the way in the form of internet broadcasting. The big broadcasters – BBC, Channel 4, Sky and others are already planning for a future where TV and radio is delivered over the internet, on demand. Newspapers and magazines too, are looking at new ways of delivery online, especially with the development of new electronic book readers like Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s e-Reader. New foldable, rollable electronic paper is on the way offering a newspaper-like reader experience, but with tailored content delivered wirelessly straight to your portable device. Are the days of the local newsagent numbered?
What are the implications of all these new developments on communications professionals and the organisations they work for? How can we keep up to speed with all these new developments and take advantage of what new technology offers?
Most importantly, the choices we make should, must, depend on our target audiences and the needs of the business or organisation concerned. I set up Banerji Associates to help others make the most of the latest developments. But I also recognise the value of traditional methods of communications as part of a wider mix. The days of the simple leaflet aren’t dead. And it will be many years before everyone on the train is reading their newspaper or paperback on an electronic reader.
If Twittering is not for you and your business, we’ll say so. If your expensive video news release is only likely to be seen by your Chief Executive, and is a complete waste of money, we’ll say so. But if you need to abandon your monthly printed newsletter, posted to 20,000 people in favour of a more efficient and cheaper electronic newsletter, we’ll say that too.
Today Prison Service News is also available online via the Prison Service website. It has moved from being a newspaper to a magazine. Paper to internet. In addition to prison officers, and the thousands of other staff who work in prisons, it is available for anyone to read via the web. I wonder what my old Editor would make of it today…