The WaPo Labs team is a big fan of field trips. Every few months or so, we try to take advantage of the vast array of sites and activities that the nation’s capital has to offer, such as the Newseum, the Phillips Collection, and Friday afternoon jazz in the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden, to name just a few. (The Post Pub is also a frequent host to our team gatherings, although the site is admittedly a bit less culturally significant than the others.)
In this spirit of exploration, we decided to plan a group visit to “The Plant” where The Washington Post newspaper is printed, so that we could see the how the publication is produced from scratch.
As a group focused on the digital future, most of our time is spent working with emerging technologies and exploring what possibilities lie ahead; when it comes to more traditional methods of print production, as we learned during our visit to the plant, many of our assumptions about the industry turned out to be outdated — and, in some cases, just plain wrong.
I asked my fellow field trippers to reflect on what they discovered during our “tour of the presses” – below are some myths that we went in believing, and the surprising truths we learned.
Myth: The newspaper is one physical document that is produced daily and sold to all subscribers, whereas the production of digital content allows for an array of customization.
Truth: There is a vast amount of customization available for both users and advertisers in the print edition.
Chris: The depth of customization that The Washington Post‘s printing plant is able to provide is amazing. While our team is building applications that deliver personalized content to readers’ computers and devices, the Post has been delivering locally customized newspapers right to readers’ doorsteps for a very long time.
Deborah: Online advertising is typically praised as the most targeted form of advertising, but I was bowled over by the targeting and sophistication of newspaper advertising – advertisers can target their print ads through hundreds of sub-zip codes in the D.C. area, as well as by using demographic information like household income. That means that the plant prints thousands of variations of a single day’s paper and uses sophisticated equipment that can sort, collate, and assemble an individual paper that’s uniquely targeted to a specific neighborhood or household.
Myth: The printing process is exactly the same as it was a decade ago.
Truth: The technological advances in the industry have been enormous and the printing process is a hugely complex endeavor.
Alex: My favorite part of the tour was the moment when I walked into the printing room and saw the presses. Standing three floors high, the machinery is just breathtaking. It’s amazing how much engineering power it takes to print the paper quickly and efficiently.
Myth: The physical newspaper is old technology; digital is new technology.
Truth: They have robots.
Arty: I felt warm and fuzzy when I saw the plant’s self-charging robots that haul multiple-ton reams of paper and still manage to carry on with the most charming of demeanors. Watching the human-operated roll-lifter embrace two pairs of stacked reams, like a child might embrace a beloved oversize teddy bear, and deposit them feather-light at their destination underscored the technological advancements and technical skill that are evident in the press’s everyday operation.
Jay: There were robots picking up two-ton rolls of paper, moving them from the loading dock all the way to the printer, and then loading them into the printer! Softly, too. We learned that the paper rips only a few times per month – I can’t fold a newspaper without tearing it.
Visiting the printing plant was an incredible opportunity to see, up close and personal, how complex and technologically advanced the production of a newspaper like The Washington Post really is. We learned that many of our assumptions about the relationship between traditional print and digital content were outdated, and that both industries continue to evolve constantly.
Also — and of equal significance — there were some pretty cool robots.