Winning the digital vs. print tug-of-war

By Amalie Nash


Denver, Colorado, United States


How much time is your newsroom focused on print production?

That’s the question I posed to the audience during last week’s INMA Webinar: Reduce the Time You Spend on Print to Focus on Digital. Perhaps not surprisingly, members of the audience have not yet found the right balance. 

Of the respondents:

  • 50% said they spend a bit too much time on print.

  • 30% said they spend way too much time on print.

  • 20% said they have found a good balance between print and digital.

In other words, too many of us are still spending too much time on producing newspapers. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

I loved the case studies featured in the Webinar from Aftenposten in Norway and Politiken in Denmark — not just because they’ve found a good balance, but because they landed on different solutions to the problem. 

Read on for more, and I’d love to hear how you’re thinking about print production:


P.S.: Have you downloaded my new report, Strategies for Continuously Transforming Your Newsroom? It focuses on how to position your newsroom for the future and how to instill the concept of transformation into the muscle memory of your organisation. And there’s a chapter on print production!

Aftenposten moves to page automation, adds e-edition 

Tore Nilssen, head of the 21-person print department at Aftenposten in Norway, said he sees his job as ensuring the print edition remains a high-quality — and efficiently run — product for as long as demand exists.

To achieve efficiency, the Schibsted-owned newspaper implemented page automation over the course of about a year. Aftenposten uses Aptoma’s Dr. Publish programme. Aptoma works with more than 200 publishers and reports its customers doubled productivity — or even more — if they integrated strategic end-to-end planning.

Nilssen said the old system was inefficient and reliant on manual InDesign work. Page automation has greatly streamlined that with dynamic templates, drag-and-drop ease, and less expertise required.

“You still have the possibility to add special work, but it’s much easier,” he said. “But we don’t need to make every page special in InDesign. We can get a lot of layout suggestions in the system.”

In fact, 98% of the newspaper is produced by automation, he said. Aftenposten’s newspaper ranges from 46-56 pages most weekdays and up to 80 on weekends.

Ninety-eight percent of Aftenposten is created by automation.
Ninety-eight percent of Aftenposten is created by automation.

Page automation also has allowed for a new benefit for subscribers. The newspaper was once two editions in print, but that was eliminated some time ago. By moving to print automation, they’ve been able to introduce an afternoon digital replica of the newspaper.

It’s smaller than the daily edition and filled with news that occurred throughout the day as a bonus edition for readers who prefer their news in an e-edition format.

Readership of the e-edition is up 35% in a year, Nilssen said. That translates into about 40,000 people interested in that curated news experience.

“This has been easy to do with automation,” Nilssen said.

His advice for other publishers interested in automation:

  • Limit detailed variations for the newspaper, including sections, colours, and other components.

  • Ensure the print desk sticks to the plan and doesn’t try to manually adjust every page. 

  • Focus on the possibilities, not the limitations of the system.

“Do you need to have this or is it just nice to have?” he said. “Keep it as simple as possible.”

Politiken’s SML model is good for print and digital

Politiken’s approach to print is reliant on changing workflows as opposed to implementing technology — but the end result is the same: big changes that have made print much more efficient. 

Its initiative is called the “SML model” — assigning stories within five lengths, from S (small) to XXL (extra-extra large). Decisions on lengths are made between the journalist and editor.

A small has a length of between 2,600-2,700 characters. At a minimum, it only needs words, a top picture, and links. An XXL is between 9,100-9,200 characters and needs multiple elements such as a fact box and pictures embedded in the body text.

Politiken's SML model uses templates dictated by the length of news articles.
Politiken's SML model uses templates dictated by the length of news articles.

“We have developed hundreds of templates for the printed paper with ‘shapes’ in different sizes,” said Thomas Berndt, managing online editor and chief news editor at Politiken. “If the print team wants a S and a L on the same page, they choose a template that includes an S and L, and then they simply drag and drop the articles into each shape. They may need to change the headline, but otherwise it should be relatively little adjustment that is needed for each article. It’s possible to write longer stories than that in special situations, like a big Sunday interview, but they are exceptions.”

Berndt said it’s hard to quantify the exact savings from the system since time saved comes in many shapes and forms. But he offered a few examples and data points:

  • The design team’s work schedule was previously 89% focused on print only or print mostly. Now, it’s 52%.

  • A lifestyle section on Saturdays used to take a designer four days to do the layout. Now, the designer does it in one day.

  • Previously, separate designers worked on the first and second section. Now the same designer does both.

  • In January, before the workflow changes, the design team spent 89% of its time on shifts with a print-only/print-mostly focus. Now, it’s closer to 50/50.

  • For the printed version, Politiken used to have a news editor working 13-hour shifts and two copy editors (or sub-editors) working eight-hour shifts. The new print team has a news editor working eight hours and one copy editor working eight hours.

“But the copy editor doesn’t do the editing,” Berndt said. “Instead, that responsibility is now resting at our new role, the producers who are sitting in the core of our digital newsroom. So you save some resources, and add some resources, and you can definitely be sure that things are produced with a whole new digital mindset.”

Digitally, a focus on story length also has been beneficial. Berndt pointed out that readers online often stopped in the middle of stories because they were too long. And designers are now able to produce online-only work like illustrations and visualisations.

“I think we have created a truly digital workflow,” he said. “Especially visually, it’s been a big improvement.”

One of the requirements in the SML model is that all articles M (medium) and above need to be equipped with a fact box, which means most articles have fact boxes when they previously did not. Berndt said fact boxes are one of the best ways to add valuable information and engage readers.

Lessons learned in the process, according to Berndt:

  • This is a big cultural change, so be prepared for it.

  • Fixed article lengths can seem counterintuitive, but it makes sense.

  • Discipline, discipline, discipline.

“Respect the system, but also, you can be flexible when it’s needed,” Berndt said.

How have you streamlined print? E-mail me:

Streamlining print: questions you should be asking

Nilssen and Berndt said that while staff may believe these approaches stifle creativity, they have not seen limits to their designs. In fact, both Aftenposten and Politiken have won design awards since implementing the changes.

To start making changes, here are some questions you should be asking yourselves:

How much are your processes still about print?

  • Are your deadlines still more about print and less about a digital publishing schedule?

  • Are your daily news meetings focused on what will be in the next day’s newspaper?

  • How do you plan and budget your stories? Is print the main budget?

  • Are the story formats about what works best in print?

  • Is the copy editing done during print production?

How much are your people still about print?

  • What percentage of your newsroom’s resources are primarily focused on print?

  • How often are leadership conversations centered on print vs. digital?

  • Is the language used in the newsroom around print terms?

  • Where do the people involved in print production sit in the newsroom?

  • How well have you articulated priorities to your staff?

What’s missing from this list? E-mail me:

Mark your calendars

Upcoming INMA events that shouldn’t be missed:

  • July 31: “A Solution for the Sticky Subject of Commenting” will focus on making comment moderation easier and less time-consuming. This INMA Product & Tech Initiative Webinar is presented by Laura Badura, product manager at Spiegel. Register here.

  • September 23-27: INMA’s next in-person event, Media Innovation Week, takes place in Helsinki, Finland. I’ll be there! And we’ll talk about future-proofing sustainable news brands in the sustainability capital of Europe. Learn more and register. 

About this newsletter

Today’s newsletter is written by Amalie Nash, based in Denver, Colorado, United States, and lead for the INMA Newsroom Transformation Initiative. Amalie will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of bringing newsrooms into the business of news.

This newsletter is a public face of the Newsroom Transformation Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Amalie at or connect with her on INMA’s Slack channel with thoughts, suggestions, and questions.

About Amalie Nash

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