Deadlines Are Our Friend, Sometimes

Lately I’ve seen/heard a lot of discussion about deadlines – and it seems that they are often misunderstood.  Fortunately, I am often misunderstood, and I misunderstand most things… so it seems perfect I should write a blog post about this.

I Worked As A Flyboy At A Newspaper In My Teens – [you can skip this part]

You might have heard of newspapers.  They used to have these things where you could read news that was printed on paper – thus “newspaper”.

In my teens (in the late 1960’s) I had a night job as a “Flyboy” and printer’s assistant for a small newspaper printer who had their own web press (a web press is a huge machine where you put in 1-ton rolls of paper at one end and output printed and folded newspapers at the other end).

What’s a flyboy? It is a boy who stands at the “output” end of the press and picks up an arm-full of newspapers as they come off the press, quickly “jogs” them into a neat stack, and bundles and ties them on a bundler/tier.  “Fly” because the papers “fly off the press”, “Boy” because no reasonable adult would take this job unless they had no other choice.

A Few Things About This Job  – [you can skip this part]

  • It’s LOUD: you will soon loose your hearing.
  • It’s DANGEROUS: the various parts of the machines (cutter, folder, bundler/tier, etc) are all capable of removing parts of your body, mostly fingers or hands.
  • It’s DIRTY: the ink is still drying as you handle the papers. You get completely covered in toxic pigments that you have to scrub off with a scrub-brush at the end of a shift, and you’re breathing paper dust and toxic fumes the whole time.
  • It’s a NIGHT JOB: Or, very often it’s a night job because the papers go out in the morning.
  • It’s HARD: It takes a great deal of constant physical exertion so you are guaranteed to be worn out at the end of the shift.
  • In other words, at the end of the day you are tired, dirty, injured, and nearly deaf – much like computer programming.
  • You don’t want me to tell you the bad things about this job.
  • This has nothing to do with the point of this story.

Besides being a flyboy and a printer’s assistant, I also would do typesetting for some of the less important content, and operate smaller presses to print advertising flyers that get “stuffed” into the papers at some point, and help run the cameras and to do various layout, stripping, and other tasks.  Most of this stuff is now considered a “dying trade”. And good riddance, I suppose, but I loved it – it seems I always loved books, printing, machines, noise, lettering, typesetting, doing stuff, craft, high skills, hand work, hard work, and late night radio.  Especially the shipping reports from England that come on at 2:00 am PST.

Point is:

The point is I don’t know a lot about the whole process except what I learned when I worked in this environment for about a year, and I think I remember just enough to make my point (hopefully).

Getting the newspaper ready for printing each day requires a lot of specific things get done ON TIME

All of the following list of work must get done on a very tight schedule every day:

  • Before you can print you must make the printing plates.
  • Before you make the plates you must do the layout, camera work (separations, halftones, etc), and stripping
  • Before you do the layout, camera work, and stripping you must do the typesetting.
  • Before you can typeset you must have edited copy
  • Before you can edit copy you have to decide that a story merits getting into the newspaper
  • Before you can decide which stories merit getting into the newspaper someone must write those stories (or at least the headline and some copy) and take photos
  • Before you can write stories and take photos the reporters and photographers have to go to the scene of the story and gather news, do interviews, etc.
  • Before you can write a story you have to decide what to write the story about – a “news events”.
  • Often the “news events” happen throughout the day and we don’t know what they might be until they happen. Man Bites Dog. Nuclear Annihilation Avoided – Again, Major Caught In Drug Scandal – Again, and so on.
  • And so on and so on.

There are a LOT of deadlines in there – and they ALL HAVE MEANING.  As a matter of fact, I’ve left out a lot of details just to keep this post small enough to fit on the Internet.  Also, a number of these things happen “in parallel” – a story can be “gathered”, written about, and edited while other stories are at different stages of “completion” and still all get into the same daily paper.

So I am going to talk about the classic “Printers Deadline”.

There is a HARD DEADLINE in Newspaper Printing

At least where I worked, we had a hard deadline.  To get the paper out to the “marketplace”, the trucks must leave sufficiently early before traffic starts so the papers can be where they need to be when people want to buy them.  That’s the business. So – the hard deadline is: The press must start early enough to start putting newspapers into trucks so they can leave on time.  It is a complex dance with a lot of variables.

To do this, each step along the way has a specific deadline: It’s the time all items for this step MUST BE DONE with enough time to do all the following steps and still be on the press when printing starts.

The bottom line: if a story isn’t ready and “on the press” when the press starts printing, it is NOT going to be in the newspaper (there are ways around this, but that’s the general idea).  That is a hard deadline.  A lot of things can be easily changed right up until that minute.  After that, it is costly in both time and money to make changes.

Sometimes someone will yell “Stop the Presses”, like you see in the movies – but that is rare.  There are occasional “Dewey Defeats Truman” mess-ups.

My point: Real Deadlines Exist

Real deadlines exist. When they do exist, we need a system or method in place to deal with them so we have a reasonable chance for success.  In the newspaper business they have the deadline thing figured out.  The deadline is obvious. Some people say this is where the term “deadline” was invented.  By the way, the newspaper industry has bigger problems than deadlines nowadays, or maybe it’s a different kind of “deadline”, and we can talk about that some other day.

How Newspapers Deal With So Many Deadlines

There are a number of things the newspaper publishers have found work nicely to allow for these serious deadlines.

  • Create news features (stories) daily – work in daily iterations – each day, the current “most important” content is created
  • Deploy daily – a whole year worth of news is delivered in small, useful, daily chunks
  • Decisions are made at the last responsible moment – if a more important story comes in at the “last minute”, a less important story can be removed.
  • If insufficient material is generated for a story for it to be interesting or useful, they can quit working on it at any time.
  • Whatever is done by the daily deadline is what gets delivered.
  • There is no “Yearly” deadline – it’s more like a continuous delivery system.
  • They discover processes that allow them to work quickly – e.g.: you can buy some stories from a third party (such as… the AP)
  • They can “spice things up” as needed to boost sales.  That is not really important to the point of this article.
  • They ca add lines and cut lines from a story to fill the space as needed.
  • If a really important story comes in, several people can work on it at the same time.
  • Stories that can be worked on, are worked on.  Stories not ready to be worked on aren’t.
  • Fillers and other non-news “content” can be done and ready to add as needed without effecting the output of more meaningful content.  For example, a whole weeks worth of comics can be ready each Monday.
  • Reporters and photographers can be multi-purpose (they can wear more than one hat).  They can interview someone, take a picture, write a story.  Some can even do the typesetting in smaller houses.
  • They only need enough good (or really, “bad”) news material to keep people happy.

News items have different schedules and different deadlines based on the nature of the content – a garden page item might take weeks to write, photograph, illustrate, layout, etc – and a hard news item often has at most about a day and sometimes as little as an hour to go from “this just in” to “press-ready”.  Almost any feature can be edited to reduce its size, increase its size, or rearranged to fit the space on a page.

Sometimes they “stop the presses” and re-set one of the plates to change or add content.  Also sometimes a “special edition” is needed to disseminate late breaking but important news.  Sometimes a flysheet can be printed on another press to add content at the last minute.  Lots of options.

In other words – there are many practices they’ve innovated over the years to be able meet those deadlines and do the job of delivering a sufficiently interesting and sell-able product.

Sometimes Deadlines Are Needed, and We Need Ways To Handle That

Well – this blog is about software development, not the newspaper business.  However, I think there are a few similarities.  What do you think?  You probably see other similarities, and a few differences between the newspaper business and computer programming.  Still, the newspaper model might have some use.

Do you have deadlines??? Learn how to deal with it.


One Comment

  1. Petri Heiramo:

    Very good article :). Thanks for writing. Not only was it interesting to read about old newspaper printing, the topic was good.

    I’ve been talking of the same recently. Driving the project around deadlines (with the condition that it is done “working smarter, not harder”) promotes certain good Agile principles and ideas, e.g.:
    – Prioritisation, and value optimisation within a feature
    – Concrete releases to some stakeholders
    – High moments instead of “the same every week”
    – Useful Sprint goals (if you use Scrum) towards each release
    – Removing waste from the process (vs. time & materials based consulting work which doesn’t have an innate driver for improved performance)

    I wouldn’t make up deadlines, but look for ones that make sense, and then use those as a foundation for release planning. And then adjust expectations etc. as reality unfolds.

Leave a comment