Robots II: print layout automation for the first web publication

Above: Photo by HayDmitriy/DepositPhotos.

BitDepth#1357 for June 06, 2022

Here’s a treat that dates back to the Precambrian era of desktop publishing.

Listen to Mark read this column.

One of the cool things about my first engagement with desktop computing is that I didn’t start out using a word processor or even Photoshop on a personal computer.

The first software I double-clicked on was called Quark Xpress, the premier professional desktop publishing champion of the 1990s.

On the first Macintosh computers running the first paging service on the home island of newspapers formerly known as Trinidad Publishing in 1989, Quark ran at a snail’s pace.

It was simply not possible to place a high resolution image on these underpowered computers. Thus, an elaborate system of low-resolution token images was created, replacing the images on one or two (more) powerful systems before being sent to the image processor to be made into film negatives.

So these early paginators became very adept at running Quark from the keyboard.

In one notable instance, I watched a pager create a page entirely from the keyboard, then walk away as the processor struggled to catch up to its commands, with the page slowly taking shape on the screen after it was went to chat with someone.

It took a long time for something like this to reappear, but I immediately remembered this afternoon when I watched a video of ProtecMedia’s AIDA building a print layout based on the content of a page website.

AIDA (Artificial Intelligence Design Assistance) is one of the journalism automation products offered by ProtecMedia and it has been deployed by the French group La Depeche as part of its plan to move its publications to the first broadcast on the web .

The La Dépêche group produces 13 editions of forty pages each week, including six daily newspapers, while delivering its reports on six websites and six applications.

The print editions reach 16.8 million readers and 15 million of them read the report online. It is, collectively, the seventh largest news site in France with 150 million visits per month.

It also serves a “zone of influence” which is only one sixth of France, an octagonal block in the south of the country.

The publications focus on hyper-local reporting delivered by 700 correspondents with a collective production of 1,200 articles each day.
The average age of the public is 65 years old.

“They have time and money,” Michael Bourguinon, the group’s chief revenue officer, said with a wry smile during a webinar discussion about the project in April.

Bourguinon notes that there have been challenges in the digital transformation of newspapers. The company’s sales and subscription teams are still focused on print editions, but growing digital subscribers and advertising remains a key mission.

“The only fuel to achieve this goal is content,” he said.

La Depeche is currently preparing to enter the second phase of its print automation project, which will focus on producing articles for the first publication on the web.

In the first phase, correspondents created online reports on a daily cycle, writing on established templates for print production.

Each online story is categorized with a zip code that corresponds to a layout location.

La Dépêche’s schedule includes 700 correspondents writing for thirteen publications, including six dailies.

The media house realized a 30% reduction in production time and effort by assigning 100 pages of an average of 520 pages produced per day to be produced using AIDA automation.

Three levels of automation are available.
La Depeche worked at the first level. Published web stories are slipped into pre-designed layouts for print publishing with formatting handled by AIDA.

At the second level, AIDA creates its own layouts based on previously created settings and tags.
The highest level of AIDA can work from a list of URLs and create an entire log with predefined templates.

“Print automation gives the editorial team more time for reporting, more time to decide what they want to do with it and how,” said Maria Arenas Figueira, chief marketing officer at ProtecMedia.

While La Depeche reporters found it easy to work with Aida, Arenas warned that the media must be clear about what they want to achieve with automation.

“I don’t think anyone puts the front or back cover of a post on automation,” she said.
“There are too many decisions to be made there.”

AIDA works with most content management systems, although ProtecMedia has its own CMS solution.

It took 30 years for this startling vision of a printed document building itself to become an AI-driven reality, but it won’t be another 30 years for the technology to become more affordable and mainstream.

Media houses would do well to start rethinking the relationship between their websites, apps, and traditional print and broadcast products in a world clearly determined to break down the barriers that have traditionally separated them.