Back in 1982, when the newspaper USA Today debuted, media critics immediately dismissed it as “shallow” and referred to it as the “McPaper.”
Not only were its stories short and punchy, it was one of the few newspapers around that dared to print in full color.
Respectable journalism, you see, should only appear in black and white. It was even enshrined in the nickname of the New York Times, the nation’s premier newspaper – “The Gray Lady.” The mighty Wall Street Journal didn’t indulge in photos, using instead little wood-cut style illustrations of the people about whom they wrote. The high-brow New Yorker magazine didn’t use images at all, except for their famous cartoon “drawings.”
When I started in the business a few years later, things had loosened up, but only a little bit. The weekly newspapers where I worked would use what’s called “spot color” sometimes, marking the little lines and rules around the top of the paper in a single color – red, blue, green, sometimes orange. One week sometime in 1992, my publisher decided to experiment with full color on the front page, which turned out to be a surprisingly difficult process because we shot all our photographs in black and white and we had to figure out how even to take and process color photos on deadline.
We never did it again.
Our Operations Director John Hawkley remembers the same thing here at the Napa Valley Register. Until just a few years ago, he told me, the press room on Second Street was crowded with bucket after bucket of different color inks to add spot color to ads or the front page for special occasions: brown for Thanksgiving, red for Christmas, green for St. Patrick’s Day and so on.
All of that seems comically old fashioned now. Virtually every newspaper, including of course the Register, uses full-color photos and graphics on the front page and many interior pages. Even the tradition-bound New Yorker magazine finally accepted the need to add photos about 15 years ago, some of them even in color.
And the mere idea of a black and white website is ludicrous.
But putting color onto a printed page is surprisingly challenging. You have to carefully coordinate four ink tanks and the press has to be precisely aligned to make those layers of ink line up properly or else the images look blurry.
Some printing presses, including our one at the old building on Second Street, had technical limitations that made it impossible to add color on certain interior pages. An interior page where color was available, known as a ”color position,” was coveted real estate for our photographers and advertisers alike.
At some point in the last year or two, we realized we didn’t have to do it that way anymore. We print under contract over at the Press Democrat’s press in Rohnert Park, and their machine is much larger than our old one and is not nearly as restricted as to where to place color positions.
So in recent months, we’ve been adding more color to the interior pages, starting with the Obituaries and more recently with the Opinion section. Later, we’ll add color to the Business page and eventually basically every interior page will be in color.
All this brings me to what’s probably biggest news of all: starting Dec. 11, we’re going all-color on the comics page. Color has been standard on the Sunday comics pages for decades, but in recent years, the comic artists have been producing their strips in full color, and papers have increasingly begun running them in color.
And guess what? It looks really great. We’re very excited to bring you this page in color.
How far we’ve come in 40 years since USA Today debuted. Turns out respectable journalism (and its comic strips) looks just great in color.