You've got to have a system

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 November, 2003, 12:00am

A century ago, the nascent South China Morning Post's decision to buy pioneering new Linotype machines was a masterstroke. A revolutionary technology that automated the typesetting process - whereas before each letter of each word was set by hand - it allowed the paper to be produced faster, and by a smaller staff.

Today, the paper's brand-new publishing system, CCI, is still fresh out of the box, but it is proving no less revolutionary. For the first time, every aspect of the editorial process happens on the same system.

The introduction of CCI this year also serves as a reminder of a smaller milestone in our history: the 25th anniversary of the first computers being ushered through the Post's door. Long gone are the days when editors and reporters would bang out stories on heavy, clacking typewriters. Which is not to say that all the technology changes over the past quarter-century have been plain sailing: with computers came crashes, bugs, stories 'lost' in the system, frustrating delays - and a huge learning curve for staff.

The Post made the quantum leap to computerised publishing in mid-1978 with the American-made Tal-Star system. It was very limited, but allowed journalists to edit and share stories from a 'dumb' video data terminal, then print them out to be mounted on to a page template. Pictures were handled separately and, needless to say, it was all in black and white.

Tal-Star swiftly became infamous in the newsroom for a curious set of red and green 'traffic lights' mounted on the walls. Their main purpose - it seems laughable in today's techno-driven world - was to tell all the editors and reporters about the ups and downs of the system, which was so unstable that at least once or twice a day the red light would flash on, accompanied by an ominous warning 'ding' to signal that the system was having a nervous breakdown. The alarm would bring a squad of crack troops from the Electronic Data Processing department rushing out to help salvage stories and stop them from sliding into electronic oblivion - often a vain struggle.

It would be 30 minutes or so before the green light flickered back on and the users straggled back to their desks, some still grinning at the impromptu tea-break, others grumbling at the loss of their 80-inch story that had taken the best part of an afternoon to compose.

In 1985, the Post upgraded to a publishing system from Eastman Kodak called Atex, which was already widely used in newspapers around the world. A bonus for the Post was that it was similar to Tal-Star, with editors still required to work in front of 'dumb' terminals, but it was massively more reliable and cut down on missing stories and wasted time.

The Atex system also allowed for stories from news agencies to be fed directly into the system instead of having to be typed in from paper, and it led to much better quality printing. We could even do complicated tables through Atex's formatting commands (imagine doing today's stocks and shares listings or the Racing Post tables by hand), and reporters could start filing copy remotely from places like the courts via primitive laptops and modems.

Over the next 18 years, the Post expanded, and the staunch Atex network grew with it. From four central processors and about 80 terminals, it grew to 12 processors and more than 240 terminals before it was honourably retired last year.

The Post had been using manual paste-up methods to produce pages since 1978 through to 1995, when they were replaced with the computerised Edpage system, developed by Atex. The reason was logistical: the Post's presses were moving from the basement of its Quarry Bay headquarters to a purpose-built new complex at Tai Po, meaning the editorial and production departments would be separated. No longer would editors be able to print out stories and stroll downstairs to the production rooms to see them being pasted onto the page.

With the introduction of a full pagination system, it took a while for editors get used to the new workflow: apart from just dealing with the text on screen, they also took full responsibility away from the printers for the layout and handling of pictures and graphics - now in full colour.

By the early 1990s, some departments of the paper, such as the magazine, started using more sophisticated design software like QuarkXpress, instead of Edpage. The downside of giving our designers freedom to stretch was the headache of having to manage two separate pagination systems. Archiving two sets of data was one issue; keeping people trained and able to use two systems was another. We needed a new, integrated publishing system which had all the personality pluses of Edpage and Quark without the drawbacks, and which could be used across the board for all of our editorial products.

The search for a new system started in early 2000. There were many options, but to find a system which could fulfil all our present and future needs for more than 250 users in the newsroom was not an easy task. It took more than a year, followed by a series of site visits and in-house workshops, to reach the decision to go for the Newsdesk publishing system from a Danish software company called CCI Europe.

The education section became the first to be produced on CCI in February this year, followed over spring and summer by news, business, features, sport, special reports and Young Post. Last month the Post Magazine became the final section to be moved over, bring the Post's publishing systems firmly into the 21st century, and giving the paper a firm foundation as it enters its second century.

Joseph Leung joined the Post 22 years ago. He is currently its editorial technology manager