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The Printer Giveth & the Printer Taketh Away

1 Nov, 2015 By: Harvey Levenson, Ph.D

The comma was invented by Aldo Manuzio, a printer working in Venice, circa 1500 to prevent confusion in the translation and printing of Greek classics. It is no coincidence that the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma) has been identified since 1905 when it appeared in the style guide for the Oxford University Press, and has been there ever since, just as the newspaper industry was entering its “golden years” which lasted until the early 1980s. The peek years were from the 1920s through the 1960s. The New Yorker magazine editor, Ms. Mary Norris, pointed out in her article HOLY WRIT (March 2015 issue) and author of Between You & Me—Confessions of a Comma Queen, “Many newspapers, both American and British, do not use the serial comma, which underscores the idea that the news is meant to be read fast…because it’s not news for long. It’s ephemeral. Print, or rather, text should be streamlined and unencumbered. Maybe the day is coming when the newsfeed-style three dots (ellipsis) between items, like the eternal ribbon of news circling the building at One Times Square, will dominate, and all text will look like Céline. Certainly advertising—billboards, road signs, neon—repels punctuation. Leaving out the serial comma saves time and space. The editors of Webster’s Third saved eighty pages by cutting down on commas.”

Ms. Norris is onto something here; a little known secret about the printing industry, and particularly the newspaper industry, that very few people realize.

The elimination of the serial comma was a business decision. I’ll explain. Besides being a professor, I’ve been a consultant to printing companies for 47 years. This includes newspapers. I’ve consulted in over 250 such companies worldwide. And what is the main reason for printing companies calling in consultants? It is typically to help them cut costs to increase profits.

Consider this. The largest consumable expense that printing companies face is for paper, followed by ink. Paper typically represents between 30 percent and 50 percent of the cost of printing. Granted, for newsprint the cost is on the lower end. However, this is still substantial. So, when the argument is presented that the serial comma was removed to save space and, therefore paper, this is entirely true. Of course, people then started rationalizing its removal for other reasons. However, the reality is that its removal was a “bottom-line” cost-saving business decision. On might ask, “Well, how much space can a little comma take; how can it really make a difference?” Well, it does when considering every page of all editions of all newspapers. Further, the removal of the serial comma is only one ploy that newspapers and other publications have adopted to cut costs. (Recall Ms. Norris’s point that Webster’s saved 80 pages in doing so.)

There are 3 others:

  • The removal of the “gap” typically required on printing press cylinders over which printing cannot occur.
  • Reduction in the width of newspapers.
  • The use of special typefaces that reduce the amount of ink used.

Removal of the “gap” required on printing press cylinders over which printing cannot occur:

At a 1986 meeting at a resort in France on Super Bowl Sunday, Heidelberg, a major printing press manufacturer, formalized its commitment to develop a system that could take printing to a new level. That revolutionary “Sunday Technology” from what became the Heidelberg M3000 printing press, but also called the “Sunday Press” because the idea was conceived on Super Bowl Sunday, proved to be one of the most important developments in printing history, providing quantum leaps in efficiency. Typically, blankets on printing presses that transfer the printed image from the printing plate to the paper are wrapped around a cylinder with the edges inserted and locked into a gap in the cylinder. The smallest gap is about 1/4 inch wide over which printing cannot occur. What Heidelberg did was develop a gapless blanket sleeve that slips onto the cylinder as opposed to being wrapped around it. Therefore, a printed image can be transferred to 100 percent of the blanket and then onto the paper. A significant inventive uniqueness of the M3000 press was the paper savings that its technology provided because the printing area was increased. For every 40,000,000 impressions of the press, 10,000,000 inches of paper were saved. For every 10,000 rolls of paper used, there was saving of nearly 2,600,000 feet or 500 miles of paper. So significant was the technology of thee M3000 “Sunday Press” that it was lauded three years in succession in Encyclopedia Britannica’s “Book of the Year” in 1993, 1994, and 1995.

Reduction in the width of newspapers:

A more recent ploy to reduce the cost of producing newspapers is reducing the width of the newspaper. Newspapers worldwide have adopted this practice. Reduced width of from 1/4 inch to an inch results in substantial paper cost savings. Further, type selection has moved to narrower faces to allow more characters per line.

The use of special typefaces that reduce the amount of ink needed:

Yet another current ploy is typeface selection that requires less ink than others. For example, fonts have been developed that have microscopic holes punched in the letters that are not visible in the printed document in standard font text sizes of 9 pt. to 12 pt. This saves money because no ink is required when printing these little holes. Reports are that as much as 30 percent in ink cost savings is enjoyed. Additionally, it was determined that typefaces with thinner strokes use less ink and save costs, another increasingly popular practice in printing newspapers and related “throwaway” publications. Add to these ploys the elimination of the serial comma, and cost-savings becomes significant. My point is that whatever it takes to cut costs, regardless of how insignificant it may seem, will be considered and usually implemented. But, I ask, at what cost to good communication?

Harvey R. Levenson, Ph. D. is Professor Emeritus at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. He headed the Graphic Communication Department for 30 years before being awarded Emeritus status in 2013.

About the Author: Harvey Levenson, Ph.D

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