SCMP 115th Anniversary

More than a century of newsroom technology at SCMP: from the telegraph to live streaming of spacewalks

Tech advancements, taken for granted today, are vastly different from news gathering and delivery in the 1970s, let alone at the start of the 19th century

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2018, 3:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2018, 3:02am

To the late and legendary Kevin Sinclair, a renowned Hong Kong-based journalist who joined the South China Morning Post in the 1970s, the telephone was “the greatest tool of the reporter’s trade”.

“A phone in your hand enables you to reach virtually every corner of the earth... even further afield,” Sinclair, then assistant editor at the Post, wrote in an article 35 years ago as he recalled his attempt to put a call through to Nasa’s Gemini IV spacecraft as it orbited the earth. Sinclair wanted to speak with astronaut Edward White who became the first American to walk in space in 1965 – but the attempted call was not successful.

The news gathering world today has changed beyond the imagination of old school journalists like Sinclair. Telephones are nowhere to be seen on reporters’ desks at the Post’s modern and spacious new offices at Times Square, Causeway
Bay. Rather, the voice call function is now embedded in Cisco’s Jabber software which is installed on laptops and handles voice calls, video chats and instant messaging.

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) now live-streams spacewalks on YouTube, with millions of people around the world able to watch in real time using an internet connection.

These technology advancements, taken for granted today, are vastly different from news gathering and delivery in the 1970s. Yet the Post started publishing several decades earlier than that.

At the start of the 20th century news travelled at a snail’s pace. Some stories in the first edition of the Post, published on November 6, 1903, reported on international wars, politics and other world news that was days old, including a murder case that happened in Paris the month before.

Back then reporters wrote stories with pens and paper, and overseas correspondents used the electrical telegraph service to transmit copy back to the newsroom. Telegraph messages were transmitted by hand and charged by the word, so reporters had to be concise with their copy.

In the early years of the Post, local reporters in Hong Kong had to rush back to the office after an assignment and crank out their stories on noisy typewriters. After subeditors reviewed the copy with a pen or pencil, marking up any changes, the type was set up by hand, letter by letter. Over time, the typesetting process became progressively more automated, in the early years particularly through the use of German-made Linotype machines.

While the telephone was the easiest way to contact sources in Sinclair’s time, it also became an alternative way for reporters on the ground to get their stories through to the newsroom, where expert copy takers at the end of the phone line would type up the story as the reporter dictated it. Overseas news would come through on the teleprinter, which could receive and send typed messages over regular phone lines.

In 1978 computers made their debut in the Post newsroom and typewriters quickly became obsolete. Publishing was also computerised with the introduction of the American-made Tal-Star system, which had its limitations but allowed journalists to edit and share stories from a data terminal, and to print them out.

Not always reliable, the Tal-Star was conspicuous for its set of red and green lights on the wall, which signalled the current state of the system. When a glitch occurred, which was once or twice a day, the red light would flash, followed by an ominous “ding”.

The publishing system received a major upgrade in 1985 when Atex was installed, which fed stories into the system digitally instead of having to manually type them in. In 2003 a system called CCI replaced it, integrating all aspects of the editorial process under the same system.

Fast forward to today – the internet age where information travels at the speed of light – and reporting and production at the Post has changed dramatically to keep up with the 24 hour news cycle and global media competition.

Enoch Yiu, chief reporter for the Business Desk who became a Post business reporter in December 1996, recalled her early days at the newspaper when she had to be physically present at news-making events.

To cover a debate at Hong Kong’s Legislative Council in those days, Yiu had to attend the meetings in person; otherwise she would have to borrow a tape recording of the proceedings from the Legco office. She would also have to send an assistant to the Hong Kong stock exchange headquarters to obtain copies of consultation papers.

While press conferences – known as pressers in the trade – and phone calls are still a relevant part of a reporter’s daily routine today, there are many more options when it comes to gathering news. Email, social media, text messages, video chats and the omnipotent internet have all immensely expanded the way reporters obtain news, conduct interviews and connect with sources.

Yiu said a big difference today is how a reporter finds the story background. “Previously we needed to rely on talking with contacts or the company but now we can get that information from the internet and social media,” Yiu said.

With background information readily available via the internet, Post reporters can write a story anywhere using Methode Swing, the web based digital content production system introduced this year. Editors do their work online using the same application – and they can be physically in the office or working remotely.

Compared to the radical changes in communications technology and digital publishing, advances in the printing aspect of the newspaper business have been less revolutionary.

While computer-to-plate imaging technology was introduced in 2012 to produce higher quality printing, with finer detail and sharpness on the paper, the process of printing on a double-width press that handles more pages at the same time has been in use since 1986 and is not necessarily new. However, this technology still makes the Post’s printing press one of the most advanced and efficient among Hong Kong’s newspapers, even if it does have the leanest printing team compared to other publishers in the city. 

At full speed the press can churn out 70,000 copies per hour of all sections of the newspaper, thanks to the combined effect of the double-width machine and computer-to-plate technology, according to Herman Lo, executive director of the Post’s printing contractor Alpha Plus Printing, and previously director of print production at the Post for 40 years.

“As everything is on the internet now, the industry is not investing as much to advance the technology in printing as it did in the past,” Lo said.

As the world’s newspapers grapple with the impact of the internet age, the Post’s online strategy first kicked off on December 2, 1996 when the official news site went live.

While over 100,000 copies of the printed Post are circulated each day, the website reaches readers across the world and online content has seen rapid growth. Monthly page views in September were more than triple those in January last year. While the Post still has a strong audience base in its home of Hong Kong, page views from overseas readers rose three-fold over the same period, with the US accounting for a quarter of all traffic to the website in September.

The Post’s digital strategy has expanded greatly, with the century old newspaper striving to be a versatile multimedia organisation, with multiple news formats including breaking news stories, long reads, live blogs, video, interactive graphics, infographics, podcasts and newsletters. A series of specialised daily news products have been launched over the past year, including Abacus for the tech space, Inkstone covering China, and Goldthread for Chinese food and culture.

Besides its own newspaper and website, the Post is making its presence felt on major social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Line, LinkedIn, Quora, Reddit and Dailymotion, to reach and interact with a much broader global audience.

One prominent new feature in the Post’s Causeway Bay offices is the television studio, which can be used for interviews, panel discussions and debates. The studio and control room can stream live, boosting the Post’s ability to keep its audience informed during breaking news, and allowing reporters to appear as guests on other international media to discuss the stories they are covering in Hong Kong and the region.

Podcasts have also joined the Post’s storytelling arsenal. Produced from studios in the head office and on location in Hong Kong and mainland China, they cover politics, crime, food, culture and sport, as well as audio long reads of our best ­magazine features.

The digital age has also enabled news to be produced and presented in innovative ways, and the media industry has been actively experimenting with emerging technologies and digital tools, including artificial intelligence, virtual reality, drones and big data, to deliver news faster and to tell stories better.

AI, the technology that enables machines to mimic human behaviour, is already in use experimentally by some global media giants. The Washington Post, for instance, deployed a smart system called Heliograf in its coverage of the Rio Olympic Games in 2016, where the bot analysed games data and created stories. Associated Press began using AI to produce sports and earnings reports in 2013, and now uses the technology to track and keep ahead of trending topics on social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

While some media professionals fear losing their job to the robots, others cannot wait until the day they come.

AI is not replacing journalists, rather it will free them up to do the real work of journalism, said Keith Richburg, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at Hong Kong University.

“One thing that robots can’t do is meet somebody in the parking garage and find out details about where the money is hiding to reveal a scandal,” said Richburg, a 34 year veteran with The Washington Post, where he worked as a reporter, editor and foreign correspondent.

He expects machine algorithms to take over the mundane work of generating stories about sports scores and stock market movements. “I’m waiting for AI to be more sophisticated… and that’s pretty exciting because in the future it will free up a lot of reporters to do the real stories that take up a lot of time,” he said.

VR, the technology that simulates a fantasy or lifelike experience, has been increasingly used experimentally in storytelling. One project, developed jointly by US broadcaster National Public Radio and Stanford University, simulated the horrific experience of residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, presenting the story in a way far beyond what written text and video could do.

At the Post, AI technology is used to feed personalised, relevant content on to readers. The latest version of the site, launched in late October, makes AI-powered recommendations based on the reading ­behaviour and geographical ­location of the user to complement the news judgment of the editorial team.

But there is a downside to the new technology. While the internet has been a huge help to reporters in their work, it has created a demanding audience that craves new information non-stop.

“In the old days a lot of newspaper had libraries. Now, instead of having to look in a dictionary or an encyclopedia to answer questions like ‘what year the British settled in Hong Kong?’, we simply type the words into Google,” said Richburg.

That instant availability of information has resulted in a preference for speed over substance. “We have to constantly tweet and put out headlines and mobile alerts. You have to blast something out so quickly you don’t have the time to understand and to think,” said Richburg.

“Speed is the enemy of accuracy. There are a lot more mistakes and no context.”