City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

The Papers

Written in


Things our friends have written on the internet

A year or so ago my piece 'The Street As Platform' was kindly included in Things Our Friends Have Written On The Internet, a smart one-off publication by Russell Davies and Ben Terrett.


The paper turned out to be a prototype of the fantastic Newspaper Club, one of the more interesting ventures to have emerged from 'the papernet'. Their model rather brilliantly combines a craft-led agenda — a kind of 'slow' approach informed by bespoke design as well as template-driven production — as well as a potentially scalable infrastructure for localised printing that piggy-backs on the installed base of the newspaper industry. 

Recently, the Newspaper Club team produced another entry into what may or may not be turning into the Things Our Friends … series by creating a one-off publication for the SXSW conference, Things Our Friends Sent Us For Printing. Russell again kindly asked me to contribute something for this. So I did, choosing to write, and to write something about the physical and cultural infrastructure surrounding newspapers, as well as addressing these new physical artefacts emerging around 'the papernet' idea. It's reproduced here below.

It doesn't suggest one set of artefacts will replace the other — that so rarely happens — but there is admittedly a slightly melancholy note running through the opening series of memories, which also begins to explore the relationship between a city and its press. There's a lot more in that particular topic that I didn't get into here, but the importance of a good newspaper for a city surely cannot be underestimated (whether digital or physical or some fusion of both is another matter, and only hinted at). Hence my interest in the San Francisco Panorama, and I'll expand upon the three examples I refer to below in a subsequent post. But for now, congratulations to Newspaper Club — watch that space.



The Papers

"The bells of St. Bride's chimed unheard in the customary afternoon din of the Megalopolitan Building. The country edition had gone to bed; below traffic-level, in grotto-blue light, leagues of paper ran noisily through the machines; overhead, where floor upon floor rose from the dusk of the streets to the clear air of day, ground-glass doors opened and shut; figures in frayed and perished braces popped in and out; on a hundred lines reporters talked at cross purposes; sub-editors busied themselves with their humdrum task of reducing to blank nonsense the sheaves of misinformation which whistling urchins piled before them; beside a hundred typewriters soggy biscuits lay in a hundred tepid saucers. At the hub and still centre of all this animation, Lord Copper sat alone in splendid tranquility. His massive head, empty of thought, rested in sculptural fashion upon his left fist. He began to draw a little cow on his writing pad." [The thinly-veiled description of the Daily Express building on Fleet Street, London, From Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop]

The Daily Express building, best glimpsed from the top of a double-decker bus and on Open House weekend, still punctuates Fleet Street with its gleaming black and chrome facade and improbably opulent murals. The news itself has long since moved out of Fleet Street, having been caught up in a particularly unsavoury episode in British labour relations involving Rupert Murdoch and ‘Spanish practices’. Yet this building, also the location of the 1961 journo-sci-fi flick The Day The Earth Caught Fire, stands imperiously above it all, as majestic as in Waugh’s days, at least from the outside. No “leagues of paper” run through machines in the basement now, yet the building still has a mythical pull on the imagination, standing for a particular faded memory of journalism.

At the epicentre of Zurich’s Bellevueplatz tram stop is a low, white, elliptical building around which the pleasingly Swiss trams carve delicate loops. One half of the ellipse is a coffee shop, outside which wooden podiums enable locals to prop up their papers and espresso. The other side features a simple news kiosk, selling the typical mix of local and international papers and magazines found in central European cities, as well as sweets and various items of tobacco-related paraphernalia. The building is essentially concrete, with an elegant overhang that shelters the podiums. Here, people can stop and slurp news and coffee together, pausing briefly amidst the bustle of the city. A time-lapse photo would cast these readers as relaxed statues, leaning on the podiums and balancing newspapers, whilst a blur of colour all around represents the near-endless circling of trams, buses, cars and people.

Around the corner the offices of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung sit in a handsome block. This distinguished local paper’s nameplate sits atop the building in skyline silhouette lettering, casting a slightly brooding air over the streets around, perhaps fittingly for a paper founded in 1780. Pages from that day’s edition are posted up on the building in glass display cases by the front door. A very old man slowly moves from one case to another, carefully absorbing the local, national and international news, or possibly just passing the time.

I was once doing some business with the International Herald Tribune, who are headquartered in Paris. Their offices, on rue des Graviers in the chic suburb of Neuilly-Sur-Seine, were not as impressive as I’d imagined they might be, though they did have the inky, functional tang of journalism about them. They too pin up that day’s edition outside the offices. The lobby features a large metal statue of an owl, with its back to the street and orange lights glowing in its eye sockets.

In Seattle’s Pike Place Market, a newsstand marks one of the main entrances. As is typical in an American newsstand, every corner is carefully stacked with newspapers and magazines, presented in serried ranks of mastheads. The selection is extraordinarily global. Every corner is crammed with newspapers, magazines, journals and other forms of periodical. It was a cold, crisp, clear day when I visited, and the newsstand is open to the elements from most angles. Yet this was a happy 20 minutes, browsing the globe.

An abiding image of my youth is sitting at the kitchen table at breakfast, opposite my dad, though all I could see of him was the smoke from his pipe curling up from behind a wall comprising the the front and back pages of The Guardian. I can clearly recall the inky masthead – the version before its 1988 Garamond and Helvetica makeover, and as chunky and thick as a Val Doonican knit. I remember slowly adopting the paper myself, reading it from the back pages forwards; talking to my Mum about why there was a ‘Guardian Woman’ page; beginning to be interested a regular half-page section called ‘Computer Guardian’.

I’d usually have just returned from my paper round. Every day I’d deliver newspapers around the local streets. Neural networks clearly run deep as, a quarter century on, I can still match many of the houses on Bushey Wood Road with the newspapers they took. 

Telegraph, Mail, Mail, Sun, Guardian, Express, Mail, Express, Telegraph, Telegraph, Sun, Guardian, Sun, Sun, Times …

Late on Saturday afternoons in Sheffield, football results and match reports would be published in the Green Un sports newspaper, distributed rapidly onto the city’s streets by just after 5pm, the games themselves having only finished around 20 minutes earlier.

This still seems to me to be a somewhat magical process, logistically, though it had been going on for decades, as former football manager David Pleat recently recalled from his time as a player at Nottingham Forest in the 1960s.

“Match-day programmes cost 6p and, after a game on the Saturday afternoon, you'd come out of the ground to find a huge queue of fans waiting to pick up their copy of the Pink Un from the local newsagents, complete with the match report for the game they'd just seen.”

I have a few copies of newspapers marking momentous occasions lying around somewhere. I’m not sure where. I do know one of them is the Liverpool Echo from the day Kenny Dalglish resigned as Liverpool Football Club manager. It features the headline “Kenny Quits!”, adjacent to an image of a grave-looking Dalglish (February 22nd 1991). I note this is now worth £3.75 on some football memorabilia sites, at time of writing.

Another newspaper is from a decade later, being a copy of The Guardian the day after 9/11.

I try to pick up a newspaper whenever I’m away from home for more than a day. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in English or not. Newspapers from Seoul to Savannah provide a way to ‘place yourself’, at least to some extent. There are clues as to the local culture in the choice of typography, the rhythm of the photography, the adverts, the size of the paper, never mind the stories themselves. I don’t usually hang on to the papers, though I sometimes wish I had. Will the Chronicle be around on paper the next time I visit San Francisco?

The infrastructure surrounding daily newspapers is so familiar to us that it’s difficult to imagine a life without any of the above. Not just the papers, but the whole paraphernalia – the news-stands, the printers, the paper-round, the pages pinned up in the street. An entire social architecture, as well as an industrial and economic infrastructure. 

Yet some would have us believe that all this is going to melt into air. And indeed, the daily newspaper – at least as we’ve understood it for the last couple of centuries – does look to be horribly compromised. The newspaper, originally a ‘breaking news’ medium for most of its life, is now caught in the crossfire of broadcast and various flavours of internet, and is clearly struggling to survive in its present form. When the medium emerged, it didn’t matter if a report from the frontline of the Boer War was a few days old; it was still ‘news’. Now, however, daily newspapers can’t move quickly enough to break news and can’t move slowly enough to offer analysis.

The weekend paper will probably stick around, as it’s essentially becoming a multi-faceted magazine, and there is already one proven model of a weekly newspaper thriving in this environment (The Economist). We might imagine some daily distributed-printing products from newspaper brands who prefer to become aggregators, smartly-produced personal summaries printing out at home, or at a kiosk. The newspaper brands themselves will live on across various interactive platforms, as journalism is still of value. Yet the whole enterprise of daily newspapers is likely to become smaller, slimmer and fewer in number. 

But let’s not get mawkish about this. We could equally shed a tear for the disappearance of the town crier. Besides, paper, as a medium for the reproduction and dissemination of information, is thriving. Paper is suddenly rich in innovation and experimentation in ways that very few foresaw. Paper’s the next big thing! Often originating from the culture of the web rather than the traditional media, paper-based formats are fusing physical outcomes and digital infrastructure in entirely new ways. The affordances of paper are being harnessed to the content, conversations and context of the internet, and it works.

These various explorations of physicality are not insignificant – there is something innately valuable in being tangible, which is somewhat ironic for a medium that was often characterised as “tomorrow’s fish and chip paper”. 

I’m thinking of McSweeney’s extraordinary San Francisco Panorama in particular, a simply beautiful and enriching prototype illustrating how a city’s daily newspaper could be made to work, leading by example.  Only available on paper, on the streets of San Francisco and via the McSweeney’s shop, it is a hybrid nonetheless, with some elements of the information design and content formats  drawn from the web, where others are drawn from the best of newspaper design and culture. The level of craft involved in every aspect of the Panorama is utterly inspirational, and yet the paper also works as ‘strategic design’, outlining a possible business model and cultural role for the newspaper in the city. No copies of this thing will be thrown away.

Similarly I hugely appreciate Spin Papers and Design/Research, from Tony Brook and Adrian Shaugnessy’s Unit Editions. Spin Papers 2 comprises the reading lists of major graphic designers, whereas Spin Papers 3 is about punk 7” singles. Unit: Design/Research features the work of little-known Folkways album cover designer Ronald Clyne. All are beautifully-designed ‘newspaper-like’ formats available via the Unit Editions website for a few quid. It’s not that these things couldn’t be books – though the publishing industry would struggle to make them work, financially – it’s that they are actually better as ‘newspapers’, published in this near-on-demand fashion, and distributed using the machinery of online. Again, these papers are ‘keepers’. 

So the impact of digital media on physical media is not to ‘delete it’; quite the opposite. Physicality retains its importance, and the existence of an alternative actually forces people to think about what should be physical and what should be digital for perhaps the first time. It raises the game on both sides.

We could file the MagCloud project under this same rubric, though there’s something about it that doesn’t quite have the bespoke, craft-led approach of these other projects. Yet their on-demand platform for upload, printing and distribution brings us neatly to Newspaper Club

Newspaper Club is particularly interesting not just because of this focus on physical products with digital interfaces, but because it also builds on the physical and social infrastructure of newspapers I started this piece with, rather than replacing it or forgetting it. Their particular genius is to recognise the possibility in retrofitting an installed base of newspaper printers, enabling the distribution to scale in a way that’s unusual in such projects.

Allied to an understanding and valuing of craft, this adaptive re-use and reinvention of the artefacts of journalism is what makes Newspaper Club perhaps the most intriguing project here, strategically. It’s a machine for printing out the internet. And that, as absurd as it sounds, suddenly seems like a very interesting thing to be doing.


2 responses to “The Papers”

  1. Lawson Avatar

    Doesn’t the Panorama just look too much like a blog/web 2.0 site though? Isn’t the appeal of newspapers partly their aesthetic distinctiveness? It strikes me as somewhat incongruous.


  2. Phillipa Avatar

    “the relationship between a city and its press”
    I loved newspaper fonts in S America – in particular Buenos Aires and Columbia – they evoked 1950s europe, expressos and café culture, another era. Wish I’d photographed them, these links don’t quite live up to the memory (sorry they’re long – the typography they use for online versions is so different from hardcopy – antithesis of the Guardian etc). In terms of what the papers cover – veracity/bias etc – that’s a whole other slant on Columbia government and society.
    El Tiempo
    El Columbiano
    El Espectador


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