"Needless to say, we were not first when it came to photos and color but we've definitely adopted them in a big way," she continued. "We have humongous photos on our front page."
It took some major technological changes for that to happen. In fact, the same workflow that prevented photography for so long was also directly tied to all kinds of design decisions, including the use of the Journal's famous stipple drawings—those dotted portraits of columnists and newsmakers—and the typeface used in the paper.
"When I first joined the paper, they were still pencil editing, which really blew my mind," said Jim Pensiero, who is deputy managing editor at the Journal and has been on staff at the paper since 1984. "There was no technology in the newsroom at that time."
So the process of turning pencil-edited stories in the afternoon into newspapers that landed on subscribers' doorsteps the next morning was, by today's standards, almost unbelievably complex. The newsroom would fax its stories to composing rooms in places like Chicopee, Massachusetts and Naperville, Illinois, where the stories would be typed into a computer.
"From the computer, they then make cold type, strips of paper which you would then paste on a board," Pensiero said. "Once you made up the pages, the pages would then be photographed, and you'd make this huge negative. And from the huge negative, we would scan it—we were really quite visionary in digital scanning—then put them up on the satellite and they would end up at satellite printing plants."
From there, at 19 printing plants across the country, the Journal would be printed. And so, with each step that got the paper closer to being complete—to the point when it was transmitted to one of those 19 plants—the look of the thing warped. The contours of ink letters swelled along the way, which meant every decision about how the paper ought to look was tethered to this multistep process. It's why the Journal used a proprietary typeface called Dow Text, because for Dow Text to appear on the page the way the paper's leaders wanted it to, it had to bleed just enough but not too much.
"It's almost like taking a picture of a picture of a picture," Pensiero told me. "You imaged the words on this piece of paper. You put the piece of paper down on the board. You took a photograph of the piece of paper, You made a negative. You transmitted it. You reimaged it. You made a plate... Each time you did that, it kind of bled a little. Dow Text was meant to bleed through all of those reimagings and then, when you actually printed it, it looked fine."
Until, that is, the printing process simplified. When there were fewer steps, Dow Text bled less, and suddenly it looked "kind of thin and washed out." In 2005, the Journal began using a new typeface—this one called Exchange—in overseas papers. The paper rolled out Exchange domestically in 2007. "It's a little crisper for the electronic methods that we use for creating the paper," said Bob Rosenthal, a technology consultant at the Journal. "We have to look pretty close to really see the difference but it is a new typeface that has historical connections."