Tag Archives: ruari mclean

‘Newspapers are doomed’ forecast of the day

From a media expert:

The future of national newspapers is in doubt [...]: the purveying of ‘news’ (which is only one of a newspaper’s functions) is in several respects more interesting, more immediate and more dramatic on-screen. The greater part of all newspapers is given over to advertising [...] which keeps them alive, and to features of comment, information and entertainment which might just as well be found in magazines.

If national newspapers succumb [...] it may be a serious, even a tragic loss; but it is probable that local newspapers will continue to lead a healthy, useful and profitable existence for many years to come [...]

The astute reader will have guessed the prediction is from Some Time Ago.

It’s actually from the excellent, late Ruari McLean‘s Thames & Hudson Manual of Typography, published in 1980.

On the local press, he basically wins the prediction – it thrived, more profitably than the national press, right up to the point where localised Internet small ads nicked its main revenue stream. Expecting a 63-year-old print media expert writing in 1980 to predict Craigslist, Match.com, Monster and eBay would be a bit unreasonable.

But it’s interesting that someone so close to the trade (he was lead designer around this time for both the Observer and the Economist) called the outlook for national dailies so wrongly. While 2008 and 2009 weren’t great years for the print press, there’ll be a large selection of printed national papers on offer for many years to come, and the intervening 28 years were all ones that featured a thriving, albeit flawed, national daily print culture.

The rest of the book is also interesting. Obviously, in its own right, because of its excellent examples and advice on how to lay out words (of whatever sort), and descriptions of current and historical printing methods.

But also, because it was published by a near-retirement designer right in the middle of the time when hot metal typesetting was being replaced with computer-based phototypesetting, and before the advent of desktop publishing, it’s a strange mixture of things which are still absolutely relevant and things which are absolutely obsolete (my favourite example of the latter is the advice for every jobbing designer to buy a telex machine to allow instant written communication with clients).

This may be partly why Mr McLean got the national newspaper story so wrong.

In 1980, the newspaper industry was still based on hot metal typesetting, despite it being the most obvious example of a business that would’ve benefited from instant computer-based phototypesetting and offset litho printing, because of the utterly malign influence of the print unions [*]. Magazines, meanwhile, were printed in sensible places using modern technology.

It was only Rupert Murdoch’s willingness to fight a sustained battle to avoid printing his papers using Victorian technology that broke the influence of the print unions. This allowed the other papers to move over to computer-based offset litho, and hence the colour-based, photo-based, rapid-layout format we see them in today.

Without a proprietor who was pretty much an evil bastard willing to lose far more money than he had to gain to prove a point, the UK national newspaper industry would have ended up stuck on black and white Linotype letterpress at an insane cost right up until it died. At which point, Mr McLean’s thesis would’ve been proven.

Update: the Guardian’s Peter Robins comments. Well worth a read.

[*] I suspect this is one of the reasons the press in the UK trends right-wing, despite being made up largely of natural liberal-y media folk. At the time today’s editors were junior reporters, the print unions lived up to absolutely every change-and-efficiency-hating, restrictive-practices-loving, company-bankrupting, general-utter-bastard stereotype of 1970s and early 1980s trade unionism.