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Continuous Publishing Replaces the Deadline

By Jack Powers

Published: September 15, 1996

Most writers, editors and art directors organize their work for the convenience of the pressman, batching up collections of copy and art with deadlines for the pouch that goes to the printer once a week, once a month or once a year. Interactive media eliminates the holy deadline, though, presaging in a new kind of editorial workflow that is continuous, not episodic, and that ultimately is better adapted to the way information lives instead of the restrictions that press runs impose.

Everyone who works on a print publication punches in at a highly structured assembly line job: copy, art, edit, and proof are clearly defined goals every step of the way--A leads to B leads to C--and once the ink is flowing and the press is running, the work is definitely complete.

But what if there is no press? What if readers are dialing into your web site, or accessing your fax database, or calling up your demand-printed publication. We’re moving into a world where a publication is never finished, where the copy is never closed and where even advertising and illustrations may get better and better every day. For many interactiove publishers, there is no hard and fast copy closing, no definable end to the publication process. There’s often no tangible, three-dimensional end product at all.

As new media forms proliferate, our comfortable batch manufacturing scheme of publishing production will gradually give way to a continuous publishing model in which the work is never ended. As soon as a piece of data is ready, it goes out over the wire into the world.

Editors post finished stories directly onto web pages. Photographers and illustrators zap images directly into the liver feed. More automated editorial sources like database extractions, computed numeric values and wire service scans load information to the net without human intervention. Gradually, information elements accrue until a publication "volume" is built.

Sometimes the volume is defined by the date of creation of its components, for example, the October issue of an on-line newsletter. Sometimes it’s defined by subject, say "All AP articles about snail farming." Often, customizing info agent software creates completely unique reader volumes, like "All articles about snail farming--but not snail leasing--that were written in the last 60 days in either French or English."

In these kinds of interactive publications, the very idea of a pre-packaged, tangible volume is obsolete, and the notion that the publication is complete is irrelevant. As long as there’s a new piece of data to post, the book stays open. In fact, the volume itself changes over time: a fax publication that lists stock exchange data gives one price at noon and another at two o’clock.

From an editorial perspective, this method of operation is much more like television news broadcasting than conventional print publishing. ABC’s morning news reports a breaking story at 7 a.m. The news at noon brings the first tapped pictures. The six o’clock report carries live interviews from the scene. At midnight, Ted Koppel brings us reactions from around the world, and six months later Cokie Roberts narrates an in-depth follow-up documentary segment.

Throughout the life of the story, information is published: reported, revised, augmented, analyzed, retrospected. The same copy and art are used over and over in different ways, and the viewer selects the depth of analysis he needs: the light gloss of network news, around the clock analysis by CNN, or the raw tape on C-SPAN. By contrast, newspaper coverage of the same story appears at leisurely 24 hour intervals, and each story is crafted from scratch, a summary of all that is known up until press time. While the authors may use clips from yesterdays news, rarely do pictures or copy blocks from yesterday’s paper run again. TV news happens continuously; print reporting is batched around the pressman’s schedule.

The best web publications operate on the same kind of continuous publishing mode as TV, the but add the key dimension of memory. TV news spills out of the tube in one direction, just like newspapers and magazines, but on-line publications have a continuous memory that lets a reader browse the coverage from this morning, last week and now to see the story develop. Many webs sites, like TIME Inc.’s Pathfinder, time stamp the stories so we know when the data was last revised, and all of them accrue volumes of past publishing that is accessible via computerized searching so yesterday’s work is not wasted. Occaisionally, the pages in these volumes cross reference to new pages that haven’t even been written yet: some web- based technical journals, for example, post articles as they are ready for the public, and their on-line tables of contents point to the place where a story will be slotted when it’s done. The interactive volume contains all the work done in the past and all the work expected in the future, plus things that just came in this instant.


Organizing editorial content in this environment means discarding the holy deadline, or at least not taking it as seriously anymore. Continuous published follows the real world, it doesn’t chop it up to fit a schedule. Work gets published as it happens, not when the pressman needs it to close a form. Unlike a print periodical, no work need ever be erased or discarded, or repeated to refresh our readers’ recollections. An interactive volume is living content: what we publish about a subject keeps growing and changing as the subject evolves and as what we know about it grows and matures.

In this sense, editing for interactive media is a lot more like gardening than like the assembly line work of print production. An editor needs to tend to growing lines of information and perspective, pruning out the obsolete information, training new data to fit the conceptual layout, and upgrading old work to keep pace with the latest input. Today’s article should have appropriate hyperlink cross-references to the pieces published last year, of course, but last year’s pieces should also be upgraded with links to the work that came after, and the whole living content must be edited for accessibility and tuned for successful searchability. Editing interactive publications requires more insight and perspective into the subject matter—more multidimensional thinking—than today’s assembly line editing, but the ultimate products will be more complete, more authoritative and more useful than today’s wasteful print and TV data streams.

Of course, we’ll keep the idea of deadlines alive, at least until the current generation dies off. Editors brought up on the iron laws of dailies, weeklies and monthlies have a hard time thinking continuously, and we’ll always need some copy closing dates—however arbitrary and capricious—just so that columnists and contributors get their work in on time. But the deadline will eventually become a matter of convenience, not necessity, and living content will grow and develop according to the subject’s needs, not the pressman’s schedules.\\


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