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.



15 thoughts on “Stopping the presses (an ode to paper and ink)”

  1. Dave, that article on the pressroom “machinations” is wonderful. Your descriptions reminded me (in a small way) of my job working for a printing company in Kazoo. I loved walking through the pressroom and talking with the pressmen; I learned a lot and held a great deal of admiration for the guys that ran these presses. You brought it out brilliantly! Your are the “Writer Man”! Love you.

  2. Dave you near brought me to tears remembering the presses. If your novel is that good I want an advance copy. Best, Ed

    1. Ed, I really appreciate that, great to hear from you. The novel should be better — I’ve been working on it long enough.

  3. “The truth senator!” Well geez, all you had to do was ask. I could have thrown down with an imaginary senator any time you wanted.

  4. Thanks for reminding us how wonderful the newspaper memories, like these beloved presses, will always be to many of us. This brought tears to my eyes. Good luck on your book!

  5. Hey, Dave….

    A wonderfully evocative piece about the delights of the pressroom, that were both sensory and awe-inspiring, in the sense that the press was the beating heart of the newspaper. (Recall the final scene in the 1952 movie “Deadline USA,” in which crusading managing editor Humphrey Bogart, standing in the pressroom, is shouting to the bad guy over the phone, “That sound? It’s the press! And there’s nothing that can stop it!”) Alas, at our paper, it’s been stopped, and something irretrievable has been lost. When I was a kid at the Amarillo Globe-News (in hot-metal days), those big guys in the pressroom, wearing newsprint hats and wrangling hundred-pound press plates, were the true heroes of the place. Thank you so much for your paean to these magnificent machines that were heralded in the 19th Century as “the tyrant’s foe…the people’s friend.”

  6. Thanks for the ride down memory lane. It broke my heart to hear that they “STOPPED THE PRESSES”. We worked so hard in the 80′s and 90′s to build circulation. Sat all night waiting for 2000 and our computer world would come crashing down on us, didn’t happen. But here 15 years later bam it down.
    Thanks again for the ride down memory lane.

  7. What a nicely written piece! In the old, old days at the Statesman before we moved to the new building, the reporter who sat behind me and I would wait until tours got near our desks and then see if one of us could straight-faced say lines that I think were from the opening of a TV newsroom show that were something like, “Was it more than $100,000? More than a million dollars?” No one noticed, ever.

  8. Excellent blog! Steve and Paolo still remember the smell of ink when they would go on Take Your Child to Work tours at The Oakland Press in Pontiac, MI. The thrill of seeing your work come off the presses is like your first kiss: kind of sloppy but unforgettable. Thanks for reminding me.

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