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VGG News Flash!
Newspapers warn of Really Big Letter shortage

reported by Alan Benson, VGG Washington bureau chief

America's stocks of Really Big Letters are dangerously low, and may be exhausted as soon as this week, according to a Newspaper Publishers of America report leaked to VGG News today. If stocks are not immediately rebuilt, newspapers may be forced to report important news using regular text or even pictograms.

The report points to a number of factors, including industry consolidation, the changing Internet economy, and "gross mismanagement" for the shortage. A coalition of America's top newspapers is expected to present the report to the Federal Department of Letters, Fonts, Plumbing, and Bears later this week.

The United States and Canada were once the number one and two manufacturers of Really Big Letters, which are used by newspapers for banner headlines such as "War in Europe," "Man Walks on Moon," and "Jordan Retires." But this report paints a bleak picture of the future for America's dailies. If the government does not step in, the report concludes, there may be years of small, hard-to-read headlines in America's future.

"This is a problem that will only grow as time goes on," said NPA spokeswoman Cheryl Ngo. "America's population is aging, and we don't know how much longer Baby Boomers will be able to see anything but the headlines."

According to Really Big Letter experts, the roots of the problem lie in the Internet boom.

Until about 1994, letterforges were almost entirely focused on providing letters to end users. When a person typed a letter on the keyboard, a signal was sent instantly to the nearest Federal building. Workers loaded the appropriate letter into a transmission chute, which sent the letter to the user's screen.

As the Internet grew, the computer-driven demand for punctuation — notably "@" and "/" — caused many old-line letter manufacturers to rethink their business models.

One of the oldest and most respected letterforges, Toronto's ABCDEtc., shocked the letter industry in 1999 by switching its entire manufacturing capabilities to one letter: W.

"Here we were with warehouses full of As and Qs, and we can't keep the Ws in stock," said Phil Kattern, former chief letterforms manager for ABCDEtc. "One year, I think it was '98, there was such a rush after Christmas we had the whole executive staff boxing and Ws round the clock. It was a great time for the company, but anyone with a brain could have seen it wasn't going to last."

In the rush for Internet gold, many letterforges severed longstanding relationships with newspapers.

"It was just money," Kattern said. "Just one Really Big Letter costs four-tenths of a cent to make, while a lowercase 'www' goes for less than half that."

While some lettermakers were focusing on Ws and @ signs, letterforges that were still producing Really Big Letters coped with the changing market by switching their focus to business headlines.

"Every quarterly meeting we would be swamped with requests for the word 'Amazon,' " said McCorkson Letter, Tool, and Die Manufacturing Co. Vice President Roscoe Gillins. "It was a good time to be in letters."

It was this focus on the business section that has soured the relationship between the NPA and headline advocacy groups. Members of the Newspaper Publisher's Association were quick to lay the blame for the shortage on the country's business news sections.

"Every day, the writers presented more and more requests for Really Big Letters as part of their coverage of the Internet economy," the NPA said in a statement. "While it was important to report that Amazon still hadn't made any money, we now question the need for reporting this news every day and promoting it with four-inch headlines."

Frank Stolmeyer, president of the Business Writers Coalition for Better Reportage and Editage, scoffed at the publishers' claims.

"Our members have been exceptionally careful in their use of RBLs," Stolmeyer told Letterforms Today." "But I'm not about to be the one who's going around telling hard-working business writers that a war is somehow more important than Yahoo! announcing its quarterly earnings. Are you?"

Stolmeyer said his group was considering legal action against the publishers for libel.

"I think a court will be very interested to hear how these guys come wandering into the newsroom at all hours of the daytime with their 'boy, sure haven't had a good big headline in a while, ya know, my daughter just got engaged, how 'bout that for a headline?'"

Stolmeyer isn't the only one objecting to the business writers being blamed. A small group of alternative newsweeklies last week ran several small-headline stories about the prolific use of Really Big Letters in sports headlines.

Attempts to reach a Coalition of American Sportswriters spokesperson were unsuccessful. The only statement issued by the group was a terse "yeah, but this is sports we're talking about. Sports!"

If rationing is implemented, the problem could grow to encompass other media properties. A high-ranking member of the Local TV Newscaster's Caucus said many local newscasters would be unable to tell what they should report without banner headlines.

"I mean, we know to report stuff with T&A, but who has time to pay attention to all this stuff in other countries like Germany and Washington," the spokesman said. "I think Americans need to know that this isn't just a problem for newspapers, it's a problem for TV, which makes it more important."

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