8 Feb 2020 Filed in: career, reflection
Publishing since the 2000s
In a career of 20 years, the more things change the more they stay the same.
Last weekend I stumbled upon a folder of clips from my newspaper work, bringing the realisation it's been 20 years since my first newspaper gig in January 2000.
How different things seem now.
It's hard to not notice the change in technology and speed. Partly that’s from moving from infographics for print-focused newspapers (example) to digital publishing.
But in print publishing and online, technology changes have been tremendous — so much so you’d think it was the change.
My daily software in 2000 was Quark 4 on Mac OS 7. I don’t think there's anything about that duo to be nostalgic for, other than for a fragile software environment encouraged you to focus. Or you could use "cooperative" multitasking that would eat away at your dozens of MBs of RAM and likely bring a reboot.
You were always one bad PostScript ad placement away from a system lock and losing 30 minutes of work.
Fancier things like Quark 5 and Adobe's InDesign were already shaking things up (did I ever want that optical kerning), but they were too new and simply weren’t trusted for our daily production needs and printing and waxing.
From a MacWorld column in January 1999:
InDesign is that it runs relatively briskly, particularly with long documents on G3 or better machines. Still, I'm the first to admit that InDesign's recommended system requirements — the list includes a G3 processor, OS 8.5 or later, and 128MB of RAM — are excessive. (Quark recommends that XPress users have 10MB of RAM.) I would be a bald-faced liar if I didn't admit that XPress fares better on slower systems.
But the topic is typesetting, not performance.
And there were still very analogue parts of the workflow, like lifting and pasting ads and copy.
Improving technology brought faster iteration cycles. Particularly in 2008 when I switched from working for newspapers to an online-only publication.
Speed and features were everything we needed, at least it felt that way.
The siren call of the early web tools
Although my years in print publishing until 2008 were filled machine-locking system errors and lifting and re-waxing ads from yesterday’s edition, the web had its own horrors waiting behind a veneer of instant publishing.
The acronym WYSIWYG still haunts web publishing in 2020.
If you designed print documents you know the importance of using your document styles to manage text properties and images, however it was a concept that didn't really exist for the web until CSS arrived in 1996 and it took CSS some time to go from managing styling to empowering layout. Internet Explorer would dominate and we would have to wait until mid-2000s for meaningful CSS innovations to arrive.
It was a rough time.
Fortunately, I won’t have to retell it all, with serendipitous timing, developer Evelyn Woods has written a retrospective on the CSS and the web dating from a similar time period, in part:
I’ve been taking for granted that most folks doing web stuff still remember those days, or at least the decade that followed, but I think that assumption might be a wee bit out of date. Some time ago I encountered a tweet marvelling at what we had to do without
I’m here to tell all of you to get off my lawn. Here’s a history of CSS and web design, as I remember it.
New and incredible features were coming all the time (oh how Firebug was magical), but there were so few established best practices and fewer people to get good advice from. And software didn't always point you in the best direction.
Why use code templating and partials? Use Dreamweaver's library and export hundreds of pages in Word-like interface! ... It will only be error prone and ridiculously slow.
The tools and their developers did their best to fill the gaps, but if I never have to upload a site by FTP again, it will be too soon.
I have nostalgia for the process of print publishing, I don’t have that for websites of the same period. Sure, there was the novelty of your first few small websites — but beyond a few pages, the horrors of WYSIWYG, cgi-bin, proprietary browser features and more lay in wait.
Digital was chaos of new-ness, at least print had far more years of processes to learn from.
How do we do better?
From the early-mid 2000s the tools are vastly better. They amplify our ability to produce far more stuff in 24 hours, but they don't help us ensure we're going in the right direction.
Producing the right stuff is no easier than it was for the web in 2004 or for print.
Thanks to better tools we can take our time savings and refocus on the fundamental and universal hard problem: what are we trying to achieve here?