A Northern Virginia Daily special anniversary section

Celebrating 75 years: Index of stories
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Daily keeps up with advances

Over 75 years, staff has witnessed the evolution of printing methods

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer


We used to make photographs with film cameras. Now we use digital cameras witih memory cards.

Alan Lehman/Daily

Business editor James Heffernan paginates a page.

Business editor James Heffernan paginates a page.
Rich Cooley/Daily

Daily employee Michael Terndrup checks out the paper in the pressroom.

Daily employee Michael Terndrup checks out the paper in the pressroom.
Rich Cooley/Daily

When The Northern Virginia Daily celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1982, computers were just starting to make their presence felt in the newspaper's production process. Now, 25 years later, it's hard to find any aspect of the Daily's operation that isn't underpinned by computers and other digital technology.

The news, photography, advertising and page production areas all look almost exactly alike -- row after row of desktop computers, punctuated by the occasional printer. Looking back, the changes are almost difficult to comprehend.

When The Northern Virginia Daily started production in 1932, getting stories, pictures and advertisements printed on thousands of newspapers was a simple, but difficult affair.

Individual pages were created using pieces of lead type, each character set by a Linotype operator, who then bolted down the individual letters and handed the plate off to a press operator.

Late-breaking news meant the back shop had to keep a page "open" until the last minute -- literally, according to Irving Hottle, who worked for the Daily from 1946 to 1948.

"If you had some hot breaking stuff, you get it to the Linotype and have them set the material for you," he said. That meant physically opening up a page and putting new lead characters onto the plate.

"You might have to take a page you had locked up and ready for the press and break it down and take something out and put something in," he said.

The basic process was little changed until 1981, when the paper introduced its first computerized typesetting system. Computers were used to set and print type in columns on paper.

Page designers would then cut up the stories and stick them onto a larger sheet of paper, which would then be photographed by a large camera. The negative could then be used to produce a plate for the press.

As computers became more powerful, the era of scissors and hobby knives came to an end. Page designers went from the back shop to the newsroom, where they used software to design and print out pages to be photographed.

In 2005, another major change took place with the introduction of "computer-to-plate" technology, which bypasses the negative process entirely.

Page designers simply hit "print" on a computer, and a plate for the press pops out of a machine. But computers have changed more than just page production.

In 1982, reporters needed four things -- a pen, a notebook, a typewriter and a good pair of shoes. Finding out what was going on down at the courthouse required a walk down the street during normal business hours, and researching a topic meant a trip to the library or the newspaper's archives.

Today, each reporter has a computer with a high-speed connection to the Internet and the paper's digital archives.

Modern technology also has allowed reporters to take the office and all its resources with them. A reporter at a town council meeting or even at the scene of a forest fire can write the story at the scene and send it wirelessly back to editors in Strasburg.

Perhaps the most radical transformation to take place in the past 25 years has been the demise of film.

Generations of photographers learned to work in near absolute darkness, developing film, cutting negatives and making prints of pictures for publication. The process was time consuming. Photographers and editors had to wait for hours after a picture was shot to see the final result.

"It would take you an hour to 'soup' the film, and then you could start looking at your negatives, and then start to think about making prints," said Rich Cooley, the paper's chief photographer.

Cooley was just starting out at the Daily when the paper's 50th anniversary rolled around.

The advent of digital photography in the mid-1990s changed the way the paper takes photos.

Today, the Daily's three photographers don't even need a darkroom -- just consumer grade computers that allow them to trim and adjust the images they shoot.

Photographers can see the photo they shoot on a small screen on the back of the camera less than a second after the shutter closes. Before, "we were basically relying on faith. Did he get it or not?" Cooley said.

Now, if the photo doesn't come out right, the photographer can take another one seconds later. Things have come a long way since the era of the Linotype, said Hottle.

"You didn't have any idea something like that would happen," he said. "It's a far cry from when I started out down there at the Daily."

* Contact Garren Shipley at gshipley@nvdaily.com

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