The print magazine Oxford Today, as distinct from our growing web and digital output at www.oxfordtoday.ox.ac.uk, is a many-splendoured beast in terms of its production process. One alumnus asked me recently, ‘Who prints Oxford Today, and where does it come from?’
In order to answer that question I recently visited our printer, Headley Brothers in Ashford, Kent, on the very day they printed our Michaelmas Term 2014 issue.
While OT is prepared on computers, printing it remains an intensely mechanical, physical business still chock-full of rich smells of ink, paper, chemical treatments and loud clattering machinery.
First of all the printers use a heavier weight of paper to produce the cover, by which we mean the cover, inside cover, inside back cover and back cover. The accompanying image (top right) shows no fewer than 6,000 sheets (each with four covers) in one scientifically neat pile. Multiply that by approximately 27.5 to attain in your mind’s eye an initial sense of just how physically weighty is the printing of a magazine that goes to approximately 165,000 Oxonians.
If the covers are sheet-fed, the magazine content — I mean all the pages that sit between the covers — is printed on a thinner paper whizzing at high speed through a series of enormous printing machines. The paper is drawn from an enormous roll (right) that weighs two tonnes, roughly the same as two small cars. One edition of Oxford Today swallows about 14 tonnes of paper, or seven rolls (below right). The speed of paper through-put is approximately that of a man sprinting flat out. The larger machine produces 45,000 copies per hour from this incredible process. The atmosphere is very hot because the ink is wet and it only dries with the application of 180 degrees of heat.
The magazine is printed in sections of 16 pages that are loosely folded by machine, eventually being collated with each other and with the covers before being trimmed by guillotine and ‘perfect bound’, which means having a spine formed, and all constituent parts glued to it.
The glue comes to the factory as a gazillion little white pellets, which melt with heat. The trimming guillotine is terrifying. It is a metre-plus long blade that cuts down and across with enormous, industrial force. It is swathed in safety mechanisms and lasers that freeze it the moment you move too close. Once upon a time it wasn’t like that and printers occasionally lost fingers. What once was a well-known form of industrial accident is today all but eliminated.
When the magazines are finally trimmed, glued, perfect-bound and collated, they come pouring off a mini-conveyor belt onto a stacking device, which creates piles ready for the next stage: receiving an individually addressed cover sheet, advertising inserts, and a polythene wrapper. Only then does Royal Mail take them off to recipients.
What struck me the most was how the process of printing has become very technological even while it remains very physical. Computers control the machines; humans monitor the computers. That’s not quite accurate but it approximates what I saw. The printer used to stand over each machine pouring ink into it at a steady rate. That process is now computer controlled.
Needless to say, I was brimming with curiosity about the entire printing business as a sector. To what extent has it shrunken because of the internet? Is this an unqualified good for the trees? Who’s left standing and why? What does the future hold?
Most UK-based printers have closed or merged. However, nimble, privately owned printers like Headley have also managed to pick up lots of small- to medium-scale work as a result of the fallout. What has happened to the industry mirrors what has happened to information dissemination generally. Replacing homogeneous, huge-volume, one-size-fits-all publications are a plethora of special-interest publications with carefully controlled print runs. Paper producers have shrunken to about four major players, one in South Africa and three in Scandinavia. Notwithstanding the rise of China, global demand for paper has fallen precipitously.
My interlocutor for the day was Headley sales manager, Paul Palmer. Headley Brothers, he explained, remains a family-owned business of 134 years’ standing, founded on Quaker values. They will not print morally dubious material — particularly war/arms trade material, but also pornography and its like. He is fairly optimistic, noting that some businesses founded as internet-only services have taken to printing marketing literature precisely in order to reach customers otherwise drowned out by the screaming background noise of the digital-sphere.
Seen like this, printing today resembles the handwritten note that gets in under the radar of the email inbox. It’s not good for the trees, yet the world’s servers have now eclipsed aviation for their collective CO2 footprint, so the idea that digital is ‘clean’ is something of a myth — an idea we’ll subject to further scrutiny in a later issue of Oxford Today.
Having matriculated at LMH in 1990, I feel finely suspended between younger alums who may see themselves as digital natives (to use an expression), and older Oxonians who may prefer paper. I have met young and old who defy those expectations completely. Most of us are, I expect, to some extent curious and in other respects wary. When and where to we put our Kindles down to pick up a book? That sort of thing.
Visiting our printers made me thoughtful about the printed word. Because it is a complete, and engrossing, labour-intensive art form, I can well see why it may lend weight to words that a digital-only process does not. Each printed word has more weight because it can’t be easily denied or retracted. Once it enters the public sphere it takes on a life of its own. I’m glad it still exists and wager a bet that it will continue to re-discover itself amidst our digital age.