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Paste-up, printing and the pandemic: The Scout’s transition to online-only publishing

Large desktop computers, at right, and the paste-up board for physically composing material for pages, at left, are seen in this Scout newsroom photo from approximately 1993. Photo via Dean Nielsen

On March 31, 1995, The Bradley Scout published an article describing the paper’s new website, which allowed readers to access articles over the World Wide Web, which was established just a couple of years prior. This was done in conjunction with publishing their weekly physical paper, giving their audience multiple options for consuming news.

“The results of this can only be positive,” then-editor Dean Nielsen said in the article. “It can only serve to expand readership and coverage area. I can’t imagine any negative feedback.”

Now, 28 years later, The Scout has moved fully online, with the exception of momentous occasions such as the 125th-anniversary edition, doing away with the physical paper that had been around since its inception in 1898.

The decision did not come lightly, but rather involved a variety of factors, the biggest of which was the COVID-19 pandemic. In the midst of Bradley extending campus-wide online classes to spring break, 2018-2020 Editor-in-Chief Tony Xu published a Letter from the Editor to The Scout’s website on March 13, 2020 saying, “we plan to resume the print on April 17, when students are back on campus.”

The students didn’t come back.

The Scout stopped publishing print editions following this hiatus, as the paper still published articles to its website while students were away from the Hilltop. When students returned in the fall of 2020, The Scout was fully online.

“It was an unfortunate last print edition, but it was a memorable one for sure,” Xu said.

Back in the day

For much of its history, The Scout and its publishing process operated the same way. Once stories were ready, the words would be typeset, the staff used wax rollers to put the words on the pages and the pages were put on an easel for all the editors to see. The staff then went through and edited the piece, using X-Acto knives to cut out errors and rulers to straighten out inconsistencies.

In the 1970s, the typesetting happened at The Observer, a Peoria newspaper that was housed in the Junction City Shopping Center. Once the 80s rolled around, that process moved to the basement of Bradley Hall, where the staff would have to run back and forth from The Scout office to get the type to put on the page.

“It was just a lot of chaos and wax and X-Acto knives and PMTs in the dark room,” Lisa Coon, Editor from 1985 to 1986, said. “It was very archaic.”

The process was by no means an exact science, but with the technology available at the time it’s what the staff had to do. Stories were written using manual typewriters and students like 1971-1972 Editor Steve Tarter picked apart pieces while they were on the formatting board.

“I would miss things when I looked at that board, but when the paper came out, boom that typo jumped right out at me,” Tarter said. “It was like, ‘How did I miss that?’”

The 80s also introduced computers, although The Scout did not utilize them right away. The paper only had two computer terminals, so typewriters were still the hardware of choice for the time period.

“If you have an entire staff trying to do everything on two computers, it’s almost impossible,” Coon said.

Many Wednesday nights were spent in the office and in the paste-up room which often spilled over into Thursday morning, causing many staffers to miss their early classes.

“I was lucky I had a very understanding [French] teacher who allowed me to get through there because I probably missed half her classes,” Tarter said.

Advertising was also much bigger in the past than it is today for Bradley’s student newspaper. Businesses like Domino’s, Subway and Taco Bell all advertised with The Scout, while Avanti’s exclusively advertised in The Scout since they knew their ad would reach the student body.

“If you wanted student business, [The Scout] was where you put it,” Tarter said. “Now, it’s so different because kids are online and therefore the whole world is really at their fingertips.”

Computers and the Internet

The Scout still used the paste-up process into the 1990s, although computers became more commonplace. In the summer of 1990, the university put computers in Harper Hall as part of their “Residence Halls of the Future” program, but they were still big, clunky and hard for most people to use.

The Scout website was created in the mid-1990s in response to the dot-com boom, and even 1998 to 2013 advisor Dayna Brown Nielsen knew the change was needed.

“We were just starting to move things online because that’s what you did,” Brown Nielsen said. “You had to keep up.”

Brown Nielsen, who also served as Managing Editor from 1990 to 1991, saw the benefits in an online version of the paper. It opened up a whole new world of possibilities that the previous iterations could not deliver.

However, while online publishing may give editors readership metrics and allow them to correct errors after publishing, Brown Nielsen says there was nothing like walking around and seeing the student body reading her work on Fridays.

“When people are reading [The Scout] on their phones or their computers, you don’t get to see that,” Brown Nielsen said. “You don’t get to see your professor with The Scout on their desk. I loved that; that was incredible.”

With a physical copy, it was almost impossible to avoid The Scout, but now it’s up to readers to seek out the news they want to see. Brown Nielsen can’t believe the way this dynamic has shifted.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought paper would go away,” Brown Nielsen said. 

Moving online

Paper printouts of submitted stories rest on the main desk in The Scout’s office during the three rounds of editing required before publication. When COVID struck, the editing process moved entirely online. Photo via Angeline Schmelzer

While COVID sped things up drastically, the plan to move The Scout online was already in the works. Xu spent the summer of 2018 redesigning the website, and he and his staff developed online products such as the newsletter and podcasts to enhance the paper’s online experience.

“We always knew that the physical papers were fading away,” Xu said. “Students don’t really pick up a copy, so we know online is the future.”

Xu, like many other Scout staffers before him, had to pick up the paper early on Friday mornings and distribute it to the various stands on campus and in the community that housed The Scout. During his time on staff, it was evident that this delivery method was not worth it as people started to consume their news in other ways.

“It’s a miserable experience,” Xu said. “And then it’s even more painful when we go to those newsstands and see the full stack is still there.”

Xu knew that advertisers would see this same drop-off, further supporting the move to online-only publishing.

“They’re gonna come back to the table and negotiate a better rate and we’re gonna lose our budget,” Xu said. “Strategically, that’s the direction we knew we had to go.”

The staff created a Google Drive for everyone to work in, and the current version of The Scout was born.

Moving The Scout online was required and inevitable, as today’s news is 24/7 and frequently updated. No longer restricted to Friday publishing, the version of The Scout you read today is much different from the paper of the past, and its online transition will be the key to its survival for another 125 years.

“When it’s only online, there’s a lot of competition for your eyeballs,” Tarter said. “And I think that’s just gonna be the case now in the digital world.”

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The Scout is published by members of the student body of Bradley University. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University.