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Scott Paton

Quality Insider

Written Word: The Magic Is Still There

E-ink, soy ink, paper, Kindle, iPhone: no matter where printed words appear, they inspire, teach, and inform.

Published: Wednesday, November 4, 2009 - 05:00

There’s been much ado about this brave new digital world. Newspapers, magazines, and books are fast becoming mere electrons flickering before our eyes on computer monitors, smart phones, and e-book readers. It’s an exciting time in human history—truly a revolution in how information is gathered, reported, and delivered. As with all change, this digital revolution is a bit scary and should give us all pause. I’ve written before about the dangers of “raw” information being delivered without professionals to vet, write, edit, format, and deliver it. The last election cycle and the first 10 months of President Obama’s administration serve as an excellent example of what happens when people get their news from blogs, infotainment shows (e.g., John Stewart and Steven Colbert), and left- (MSNBC) and right-wing (Fox News) commentators.

For me, having been involved in media for more than 25 years now, the change is bittersweet. I’m a gadget freak; there’s no doubt about that. I dig technology. However, I love paper. I love the touch of it, the smell of it, the very tangibleness of it. As a kid I practically inhaled books. During my summer break, I would read two or three books a day. The library was a holy place—a shrine to all the magic worlds that waited just inside those musty book covers. I always wanted to be a writer (yes, there is a half-finished novel on my hard drive), so when I got the opportunity to write, edit, and publish a magazine, it was a dream come true for me.

I think there’s a little ink in my DNA. My father worked as a compositor for major daily newspapers around the country from the early 1950s until he retired in the late 1990s. He worked for the Miami Herald, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, among others. He started his career setting type by hand. In fact, he could read just as well upside-down and backward as he could right side up and left to right. During his career, handset type gave way to hot-lead type, which gave way to phototypography.

I began my career at Quality Digest in 1984. Back then, creating the magazine was a very physical process: text was typed and typed and typed again. Galleys were cut. X-Acto knives were used (fingers were cut). Hot wax was applied to paper. Corrections were cut and waxed and rolled down on the page. Pages were taped to the wall (and moved and moved and moved again). (We never put the page numbers on until just before we went to press.) Pages were taped to signatures (large sheets of paper with 16 pages of the magazine on it). These signatures were transported to a printing company, which used a giant camera to create negatives. These negatives were attached to the top of metal plates with a photosensitive coating on them. A bright light was shined onto the plates through the negatives. The plates were put into a large sink and washed to remove the nonexposed coating leaving the image of the page behind. These plates were then mounted to larger plates or drums (depending on the type of press used). Water and ink ran over these plates, which touched not paper but rubber drums that transferred the ink to the page. These pages were folded and glued to other pages (bound) and then they were cut, leaving the finished magazine.

Quite a process don’t you think? It’s stone knives and bearskins compared to today’s type-once and publish-instantly media. But I loved it. I loved the entire process. I liked the give and take, the folders and stacks of paper, the paper trail, and dealing with the designers and the printers. Alas, that world is gone forever—a world that younger writers, journalists, and editors will never know.

But, then again, I never knew my father’s world of setting type by hand. While I embraced desktop publishing, it frightened him.

I miss the excitement of opening the box of Quality Digest’s fresh from the printer just as I will miss the touch and smell of my morning newspaper and driving to the bookstore to pick up the latest bestseller. But, then again, I like getting almost as much news and information from Quality Digest every day in its digital edition than I could in a regular monthly edition. I like being able to read the Wall Street Journal on my iPhone any time I want to. And, it’s actually pretty cool to be able to tote dozens of novels around on a Kindle rather than lug a heavy stack of books around in a backpack when traveling.

The magic is still there. It’s in the words of the writer and in the imagination of the reader. I just have to hit the power button…

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About The Author

Scott Paton’s picture

Scott Paton

Scott Paton is Quality Digest’s editor at large and president of Paton Professional, a provider of books, videos, webinars, and other resources for quality professionals.