Stopping the presses (an ode to paper and ink)

It’s hard to write a love letter to a printing press. They’re big, ugly throwbacks, a steel-clad gnarl of gears and rollers and blinking control panels attended by black-fingered guys in coveralls with “Lou” stitched on the chest. They smell like ink and grease and machine oil (the presses, I mean. Well, the pressmen too). I love them all the same.

Next week, my old paper, the Austin American-Statesman, will stop printing onsite and start outsourcing the job to facilities in Houston and San Antonio. Which means the end of any late-breaking news in the printed paper because of the earlier deadlines required to ship papers to Austin every morning. And it means 100 very dedicated people will have to look for new jobs.

I understand. Newspapers have been struggling for years, the loyal ink-on-paper customers are a dying breed, and you gotta save money where you can. But it still makes me sad.

IMG_0012I worked at newspapers for 24 years, and they all had that mysterious sanctum that housed the presses. If the newsroom is a newspaper’s brain, the pressroom is its gut, the place where the messy stuff happens. For me, the Statesman pressroom was where magic happened: aluminum plates bent by hand around hard rubber rollers that would spin and roar while rolls of paper the size of Yugos unspooled into the thing’s maw. Those old offset presses would shudder and clatter and the ink would churn in the glass-fronted gearworks and crisp, folded newspapers would roll out the other end by the thousands.

I used to lead the occasional newsroom tour – mostly for my University of Texas journalism students – and the pressroom was always the highlight. We’d start in the newsroom where the reporters cubicled: fluorescent light, computer screens, fingers tapping at keyboards. Standard office scenery. (I secretly wished someone would jump up mid-tour and yell into the phone, “The truth, senator! All I want is the truth!” Never happened.) So, on to the presses.

Down the long blue linoleum hallway, past the vending machines. You feel them first. A warehouse full of running presses will set the floor buzzing and tickle the soles of your feet as you get closer. Then you hear them: a low metallic thrum that vibrates in your chest. Through the metal doors, the noise drowns all conversation and you’re wrapped in that inky industrial exhale. I memorized a few fun facts that I’d shout at the students: each press can spit out however-many thousands of papers per hour, each paper roll would stretch 2.3 miles if you unrolled it (or whatever it was, I had a cheat sheet). Most of the students were too busy gaping and pointing to listen.

IMG_0019Then we’d file down the narrow little stairway to the dimly-lit room beneath the presses where giant paper rolls rode grooved tracks in the floor, following some mysterious mechanical choreography before they were loaded into a press.

I remember ducking into the pressroom in 2002 with David Hafetz and Maria Henson to watch what we thought would be a landmark story come off the presses. Those were exciting days at the Statesman – the staff was still big and growing, the dot-com bust seemed like a temporary blip, and few of us saw the digital cliff ahead.

David had spent a year reporting and writing the story of Jacqueline Saburido, a Venezuelan exchange student who’d been horribly disfigured in a car wreck and was desperately trying to find a surgeon who could repair her face and hands. I’d been the editor – my first really big story since crossing the aisle from reporting – and Maria (a veteran editor) had swooped in to rescue us when David and I lost all perspective inside that massive story (which ended up running as its own section of the paper).

We walked along the flanks of the presses, watching the paper web whir through the cylinders, images flashing on the paper with each revolution like a jittery old movie reel. We snagged a few fresh copies and flipped through them quickly, enjoying the feeling of a long, hard journey finally transformed to ink-and-paper reality. Then we climbed the metal stairs on Big Blue, the vertical German press that had just been installed (the Statesman had to literally raise the roof to accommodate it). We climbed to the top catwalk, where downtown Austin was perfectly framed in the windows, washed in sunset colors.

It’s still my favorite pressroom memory. I get a little inky just thinking about it.