Requiem for the Printing Press

From The Wall Street Journal:

The finest moment in the finest movie about newspapers ever made—“Deadline—U.S.A.” (1952)—comes in the final scene.

The editor of a dying newspaper, played by Humphrey Bogart, is down in the pressroom. The paper is planning to print a story accusing a crime-syndicate boss of murder. The mobster manages to reach Bogart on the phone and threatens to kill him if the story appears.

In response, Bogart signals to the pressroom foreman to start the run. Bogart holds the phone up toward the presses as they roar to life.

The mobster, in his apartment, recoils. He yells into his phone: “That noise—what’s that racket?”

And Bogart says: “That’s the press, baby. The press. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing.”

. . . .

That scene comes to mind as local newspapers try to deal with the industry’s widely reported woes. While many papers are struggling to remain solvent, one media trend has attracted surprisingly little attention: More papers are shutting down their presses and, to save money for distant corporate owners, printing their daily editions at other newspaper headquarters hours away. The papers still bear the names of the cities where they’re read, but they roll off presses elsewhere, sometimes in different states.

This week the Miami Herald announced that it is officially moving out of its offices. Because of Covid-19, its reporters and editors have been working from home, and without a newsroom they’ll do that until at least the end of the year. Since April, the Herald has been outsourcing its printing to the presses of its major rival, Fort Lauderdale’s South Florida Sun Sentinel. Ohio’s Cincinnati Enquirer is now printed in Louisville, Ky. Indiana’s South Bend Tribune is printed in Walker, Mich.

When this happens, trucks have to make intercity deliveries, pushing deadlines earlier. Late-breaking stories and nighttime sports events may not make the morning paper. Another casualty: No longer seeing the guys who ran the giant presses downstairs donning their squared-off paper hats, which they made each day from the latest edition.

And forever, when those presses in a newspaper building would start up late at night, the reporters and editors upstairs could feel it in their feet. The vibration from the presses would shoot up through their shoes. It was glorious, part of the romance of newspapering. The shorthand for “reporters”—the press—derives from those printing presses.

The loss has a powerful, bittersweet symbolism. As Brent Batten of Florida’s Naples Daily News, whose presses have been silenced and printing operations sent to Sarasota, about 100 miles away, put it: “We’re an office building attached to the most amazing piece of machinery any of us are ever likely to behold. Without it, we may as well be in a strip mall.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (sorry if you run into a paywall)

On PG’s second job out of college in Chicago, working at a large advertising agency, he went on a couple of tours, one included a major newspaper’s printing presses and the other was of a large press used for printing high-end, slick-paper four-color magazine advertisements.

This was long before computerized printing and color photos were printed by four separate presses, one for cyan, another for magenta, the third for yellow and, finally, black. Color separations were performed with the original photograph and four separate curved pieces of metal were made, one for each of the colors.

There were always dots that made up the images. Newspaper photos had relatively large dots on one curved plate that printed black and various shades of gray. High-end presses for slick paper illustrations had very small dots on four curved plates, one printing cyan, another magenta, then yellow and finally, black if PG’s recollection is correct.

For the first run of a slick-paper color advertisement, someone from the advertising agency, usually a creative director or art director would be there to examine the first few prints off the press to make certain everything looked the way it should. Rerunning hundreds of thousands of advertisements was an expensive proposition that the agency hesitated to charge to its client.

During a visit when PG tagged along, the art director responsible for the the advertisement design and appearance saw a problem with one of the food photographs during a test run, the color of the cheese to be specific. It was not the right shade of yellow-gold. It looked fine to PG, but he wasn’t the art director.

The printing technician pulled some very fine sandpaper from his pocket and, using the test run prints for reference, did about five minutes of lightly sanding small parts of two or three of the curved metal plates while they were still mounted on the press.

After the sanding was complete, the press ran another few test copies, the color of the cheese was perfect (even PG could see a slight difference when the before and after proof copies were laid side-by-side) and nothing else had changed in the image.

The art director approved and the giant press cranked up and hundreds of gears were rapidly turning. The whole apparatus made a wonderful mechanical collection of sounds, more complex than the movie clip captures.

When PG uses Photoshop or another image-manipulation program on his computer to tweak various of his photos, he occasionally thinks of the guy with the sandpaper and the many years of experience required to know exactly where and how much to sand.

7 thoughts on “Requiem for the Printing Press”

  1. This fits with the essay I just read.

    Why I’m Leaving Facebook

    All the papers have been replaced with social media.

    Starting the first of June, the NYTimes started demanding that I sign in to simply read the Book Reviews. Really? book reviews are commercials, and they want me to sign in to read commercials. I was able to use my google account to read them.

    Before June, I could read a few book reviews with no hassle, before I had to wipe all cookies and start fresh. Now I have to wipe all cookies everyday to keep google from tracking me so easily.

    BTW, the few places that use ads to support themselves have started showing me bizarre right-wing troll sites.

    Who do they think I am? HA!

    • A lot of companies are drastically cutting back on ads.
      Those sites may not have any other ads to dish out. And they need to make money so if nobody else is buying…

      That’s why as general elections get close, everybody gets flooded with political ads: the candidates and parties buy all the ad slots for all demographics.

  2. When this happens, trucks have to make intercity deliveries, pushing deadlines earlier. Late-breaking stories and nighttime sports events may not make the morning paper.

    Hello? Internet? It’s this thing we’ve got now – it’s way faster than waiting for some wad of paper to get thrown into your driveway. Try it why don’t you!

  3. This was long before computerized printing and color photos were printed by four separate presses, one for cyan, another for magenta, the third for yellow and, finally, black. …

    Yep. That’s why it’s called CMYK (the “K” stands for “key” or the Black plate), aka: “four-color printing”. Print-on-Demand is still printed this way (for color), although many times it’s on a six-color press, adding a Light Magenta and Light Cyan to the mix.

    And I was one of those art directors who “went on press” dozens of times back in the day. I never wore a square hat.

    (great clip, BTW!)

    • I’m a sucker for complex mechanical devices with lots of visible moving parts that produce lovely noises.

      While I have no wish to move back from the lovely quiet, very low upkeep and the minimal number of moving parts that accompany computers and digital devices in general, I may need to download the rackety sounds of some mechanical marvels to listen to on work breaks.

  4. Back in the day I dealt with printers and got to see presses in action and go on a ‘press visit’ with the art person at least once. That was cool.

    I wish there were more reporters who did actually stand up for accuracy and honest reporting. I remember an apparent genre of heroic reporter short stories (mostly) from the heyday of magazine story publishing. I read and enjoyed more than one. Then I grew up and started paying attention to the actual news. They’ve long run through any lingering desire to trust without verification. My college’s publication comparing Pravda to the NYT which concluded Pravda was more in touch with reality… and that was back in maybe the late 80s?… also had an impact.

    • I think reporters may have felt braver when there were lots of competing news publication who paid comparable salaries and nobody had to compete with free on the internet than they are now, E.

      I suspect that if you get fired from a leading traditional news organization, the chances of landing a similar job elsewhere are not very bright these days.

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