Doing more with less (printing plants, that is)
September 22nd, 2005 by JTJ

The UK paper The Guardian carries a couple interesting pieces this week
on the British company, The Press Association, or as it is know now,
the PA Group.  Essentially, it demonstrates that investment in
creative people who can leverage digital technology can make

See ´´The new heart of British journalism´´ and “Service used by every paper makes only 1% of the money

The new heart of British journalism

A sleepy Yorkshire town has become the hub of an international publishing operation

Martin Wainwright
Tuesday September 20, 2005


now, extraordinary things have happened to the sleepy market town of
Howden – little more than a village on the rich, flat land where the
river Humber is joined by the Yorkshire Ouse. The first time, in the
1920s when the local airfield became the centre of Britain's airship
industry, ended abruptly with the loss of the R101 (and the then air
minister) in a storm over northern France. The second time is now, and
it shows no sign of collapsing at all.

over a decade, Howden has become one of the biggest centres of
journalism in the country. More than 650 staff of the Press Association
– well over double the organisation's workforce in London – occupy
buildings scattered round the quaint streets, as if an Oxbridge college
had dropped in. Editorial trainees are in the Bishop's Manor, a
medieval roost with jumbo plasma TV screens in the fireplaces where the
Bishops of Durham used to warm up after trekking down from the
north-east. Guests from London stay in a redbrick Georgian manor house
which looks like something out of Jane Austen.

high command of PA Sport has the vast, curving top floor of a
purpose-built office block which replaced the town's redundant police
station and magistrates' court two years ago. From here, among scores
of other sports information services, Premier League goals and match
analysis are texted live to mobile phones all over the world.

is the main laboratory for PA's expansion from a comprehensive and
reliable news-wire into the structural support for newspapers,
websites, television, radio and magazines. The guts of the service is
produced elsewhere, by reporters at news events, parliament or sports
fixtures, but the processing and ever more imaginative marketing go on
in Yorkshire.

Watson, PA's editorial director, a multiple award-winner and former
editor of the Yorkshire Post, relishes the innovation. Outside his
office on the ground floor, reporters' material is slimmed into
Teletext bulletins (“An excellent subediting exercise,” he says. “The
contents have to have exactly the right wordage to fill a line across
the screen.”) On the next floor up, the same data is repackaged for
listings and, with extra content, for breaking-news sections on
websites, including the Guardian's. On the top floor it gets
reprocessed again for sport.

section turns it into mini-bulletins for mobiles, text-only or with
pictures. There are initiatives to expand it into digital TV, with a
studio just opened and a specialist journalists' training course
starting next month. Although PA has always been, and remains, modestly
anonymous, its Howden super-office is starting to publish on a scale
most editors must envy.

the main building, Watson points out a wall pinned with national and
international news pages from British local newspapers. Copy has always
been provided for these by PA but now staff at Howden offer story
choice and complete page layout too. A couple of those magazines dished
out by rail companies are produced here with advertising and printing
subcontracted to regional newspaper customers of PA. A canny use of
partnerships has been part of the agency's growth. The editorial centre
grew out of joint working with now vanished Westminster Press. PA
Weather, which now sells its meteorology to road-gritting departments
as well as the media, has just taken over the other, Dutch half of the
joint operation.

is now full up, says Watson, whose colleague Chris Buckley, managing
director of PA Sport, takes over half the middle floor on Saturdays,
when football needs 70 extra staff and the listings terminals are
briefly unoccupied. There has been criticism about PA pay rates – this
month the National Union of Journalists published a survey showing
levels as low as £12,000 a year at Howden. But the size of the
operation is buoying the flagging local economy, and vacancies are
quickly filled.

now there is India. By November, 50 staff will be backing up the
Yorkshire operation in offices in Mangalore, on the south-west coast of
India, which are also designed to be a jumping off point for further
news and sport packaging overseas. “There's tremendous interest in
British sport in Asia,” says Watson, describing automated systems in
Howden which text or email results, as they happen, in Cantonese, Thai,
Mandarin and many other languages. “But there's also a growing number
of fixtures locally, which we can handle either for other markets or
for the countries involved.”

recent deals see PA distributing German sports results in Germany and –
from this autumn – selling South African premier league reports and
results within South Africa. Mr Buckley says: “They're holding the
World Cup there in five years' time and Fifa has recommended the
data-processing system as a model for the rest of Africa.”

the R101 tragedy in 1930, there was gloom in Howden when glamorous
airship designers stopped coming from London. Today, the “Howden
Flyer”, a direct, two-hour train service from London which stops at the
town six times a day to drop off largely PA clients, is only going to
get busier.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

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