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Danish Weekly Entering Digital Age

Newspapers: Burbank-based Bien, relies on typewriters and Linotypes, but its first computer recently arrived in the newsroom.

October 14, 1997|JON STEINMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Poul Andersen moved deliberately through the piles of ancient newspapers that seem to fill his cramped newsroom with a musty but nostalgic feel for the good old days, when editors and reporters slaved on manual typewriters and printers struggled with clanking Linotype machines.

Andersen, the publisher of the nation's only Danish-language weekly newspaper, Bien, was searching for a back issue. Amazingly, he found it.

"I know where things are around here," he said to a stunned visitor trying to take in the atmosphere of Bien's cluttered Burbank newsroom. "I've been in the newspaper business for more than 40 years. This is how I do it."

Founded in 1882 by a Norwegian priest, Bien has been covering events in Denmark for readers in the United States for more than a century.

But change may be near at the paper, where ink-stained floors and machinery that looks more suited to a Smithsonian exhibit share space within a small, single-story building that betrays none of the rich history within. Judy Andersen, co-publisher of the paper as well as Poul's wife, is trying to bring Bien into the Computer Age.

"Just don't mention it to Poul," she whispered as her husband moved his manual typewriter from shelf to desk. "We don't have a date yet, but it's coming."

She recently took a computer into the newsroom. Although it is used from time to time, it remains under a sheet and out of sight most of the time.

For now, Bien depends on its two Linotype machines. Each issue, printed almost entirely in Danish, is laid out by hand. Each line of print is individually cast by Linotype machines, which include a gurgling pot of molten lead and a maze of gears and belts. Andersen sits at the machine, working it like a loom, on deadline days.

"It's pretty amazing he's still using the Linotypes," said David Sams, a manager of the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. "Poul's the last of the traditionalists. He's holding on to a practice from a long time ago. He's the only one in the state, that I know of, that still does it that way."

Although newspapers nationally are suffering a gradual decline in readers, Bien is growing. Its circulation topped 5,300 this year for the first time, the Andersens say proudly.

"It's a wonderful newspaper," said Jorgen Grunnet, minister counselor at Denmark's embassy in Washington, where two copies of Bien are delivered each week. "They cover serious stuff and light stuff. You simply have to remember it's not a big daily paper, it's a special interest paper. But not so specialized. I know people in Denmark who have subscriptions."

*

The paper was founded in San Francisco, but Andersen moved it to Burbank in 1951, upon buying it for "a small sum."

Why Burbank?

"Because we live here," Andersen said, gesturing to Judy. "More Danish-born people live in the Midwest, and some read our paper. But we live here so we publish here."

Poul Andersen arrived in California from Denmark in 1949, landing a printing job at the Los Angeles Times. A couple of years later his future wife arrived from England. They met, fell in love, "and the rest is history," Poul said.

Despite their differing nationalities, both knew they were destined to publish a newspaper. "We've got ink in our veins," Judy said. In the early 1950s, Bien came onto the market as a possible investment, and even though it was and remains strictly Danish, both Andersens jumped at the opportunity.

"When I married this guy, I quickly got into the Danish thing," Judy said.

Queen Margrethe of Denmark knighted Poul in 1982 for his newspapering efforts. He proudly shows off the iron cross denoting his knighthood to those who question the success of Bien. Judy smiles broadly when he brings out the award. But while the Andersens share a love for newspapers, soccer is a different story.

"Poul's a fanatic about soccer," Judy said. "People call the office all the time to get scores from games in Denmark or Europe. I'd never been to a game before I met him. But, honestly, I could take it or leave it."

On the wall behind Andersen's desk are three identical clocks, each set to the local time of an "important" city: Los Angeles, Washington and Ringkobing. The latter is Andersen's hometown in Denmark, about 175 miles west of Copenhagen, the capital.

*

It seems the clocks are for Poul to better coordinate his soccer-viewing schedule than to keep the world's events in timely perspective.

"He's simply a soccer fanatic, he's rabid," Judy said. "Like with those machines."

In the back room, where one Linotype machine was audibly switched on, Poul demonstrated his skills.

"They're great," he said, as he sat down beside a machine. "Just amazing they're still working."

"Amazing indeed," Judy said, before walking over to her desk, where the computer sits.

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