The last throes of the financial printing typesetter

Once highly valued, these respected computer operators have seen better days as competition, contraction and indifference sees the industry shedding more jobs

stock exchange share prices on an electronic display board stock market wall street stock ticker bo
Credit: iStockphoto

Today, the financial printing typesetter epitomizes the definition of the word survivor in an industry indifferent to constructive technological process improvement.

Commercial typesetters have been extinct for quite some time. In order to fully appreciate the longevity of the financial typesetter, however, a little insight into the financial printing world is helpful.

Financial printers assist privately-held companies considering becoming publicly-owned, with performing registration document filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Subsequently, financial printers help companies remain compliant by continuing to perform SEC document filings once companies achieve publicly-traded status.

The typesetters (and proofreaders checking their work) make up the composition team that is often the last set of fingers and eyes to touch the copious registration statements, prospectuses, proxy statements, annual reports and quarterly compliance documents, before filing with the SEC.

Financial typesetters commonly use proprietary software that is responsible for document generation, conversion from common office productivity suite file formats, editing and transmitting documents to the SEC.

It should be noted financial typesetters perform their job functions flawlessly more often than not. The pressures are great and the occasional costly error unfortunately accounts for most of what gets financial typesetters ever noticed. It is often said in the industry that a financial typesetter is only as good as the last error-free job he or she has produced -- talk about a “what have you done for me lately” work environment.

High profile, security sensitive documents are worked under extreme time constraints that encompass two daily SEC filing deadlines. There are filing periods during the year that are referred to as “peak” (season). When I was employed in the industry, depending on any IPO’s operating concurrently, it was not uncommon for financial typesetters to work in excess of 75 hours a week -- and for weeks on end.

When I first began working as a financial typesetter during the go-go 90’s, tech companies were all the rage IPO-wise. Accordingly, many average Joes opened E*TRADE or Ameritrade accounts and tried their hands at trading stock on 56K dial-up modem connections at home. It was a crazy time for the stock market and Wall Street. And financial typesetters were in the thick of it all, working competently and confidentially.

In addition to typesetting documents, financial typesetters often “pressed the button” that led to the actual transmission of documents to the SEC for a company going public. It was not uncommon for the clients of financial printers to enter financial composing rooms across the country and either press the button themselves or watch as the typesetter did so. Sometimes, corks were popped and bubbly flowed in celebration for all, save for the typesetter.

champagne flutes glasses alcohol drinks cheers flickr/Victor

Afterwards, as clients were ushered out of the Composition room by the customer service team, typesetters and proofreaders resumed working on and preparing their next document.

Financial typesetters were skilled workers and highly valued during the 90's and up until the Lehman Bros. stock market crash of 2008. During this period of time Microsoft Word usurped WordPerfect as the dominant word processing platform for the business world.

As securities law firms standardized on Microsoft Office to produce documents for financial printers, the proprietary financial document composition systems that typesetters used struggled to keep up with the prodigious volume of new work.

A document that was easily (and quickly) formatted in MS Word all too often did not play nice once introduced into financial printers’ composition systems. Printers soon rushed to develop systems that were more compatible with MS Office documents. This typesetting sea change led to the migration of most financial typesetting jobs overseas where a large, inexpensive labor pool provided quality good enough for government work.

Eventually, efficient network delivery of documents eliminated the need for onsite composition workers like typesetters and proofreaders in many major metropolitan domestic offices. Onsite composition was one of financial printing’s premium business model selling points across the nation for more than two decades.

Finally, self-filing software applications for companies who wished to file their own SEC documents further endangered the financial printing typesetter. The move to “do-it-yourself” solutions hastened the commute to obscurity for many typesetters. It also proved that even the affluent prefer to save money wherever they can.

Today, the financial typesetter is still working in select offices across the country for those few financial printers still offering onsite composition. While the bulk of the daily typesetting work is offshored now in composition centers throughout Asia, there remains a stubborn contingent of stateside typesetters in operator roles.

Increasingly, though, veteran financial typesetters are employed in advisory, consulting and mentoring roles in conjunction with their less experienced, outsourced counterparts overseas.

Automation, cheap labor and industry evolution have taken their toll, but the financial typesetter remains a survivor, albeit one who is most definitely now on the ropes; it is getting harder to find them in the United States, as their domestic numbers have dwindled considerably.

Endangered financial printing typesetters understand their entrapment by the very proprietary composition systems they command. Yet they ignore their inevitable fate and continue to work in an industry historically slow to identify trends and one sworn to secrecy.

As each day passes, their mastery of these antiquated digital systems places them one step closer to obsolescence. For these descendants of hot metal typesetting, though, it is better than not working at all.

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