Mechanical beasts tamed before dawn
Many of our readers think of the newspaper as articles and advertisements, letters to the editor and photos of football teams. To those of us who work at The Union, the newspaper is all of these things – but it’s also a factory that converts that information from various digital formats into the ink-on-newsprint newspaper you hold in your hand.
And it’s not just a factory – it’s a factory that works under very tight schedules and juggles the needs of the mechanical world against the desires of the artists and writers whose work is consumed by the mechanical beasts.
The Union is printed at our plant on Sutton Way in the Glenbrook Basin. Press foreman Lee Brant – one of unheralded geniuses of The Union – and his crew print on a Goss Community press, and the press has nine units. Each unit – which is basically an individual printing press hooked up in a string of printing presses – can print four standard-sized newspaper pages at a time.
But we don’t print many black-and-white pages. We print a lot of full-color pages. Each full-color photo we print is a combination of four colors – blue, red, yellow and black. A full-color page is sent through a press unit that prints blue, a press unit that prints yellow, a press unit that prints red and a press unit that prints black. To print a page in full color requires as many press units as is needed to print four black-and-white pages.
The Union contains more color pages than our press can handle at any time. This means each day’s paper is the result of at least two separate press runs. The first press run for today’s paper came at 10 p.m. yesterday. It included the classified ads, the Seniors page and the weather page – Section C. Then at 12:30 a.m., we printed the first two sections of the paper, the main news and the sports section. (Obviously, we want to hold the news sections as late as we can. It’s seldom that we have to yell “Stop the presses!” for a late-breaking help-wanted ad.)
As soon as the first press run – that C section – started coming off the press, Bill Bryan, Livey Cockman and their crew in our packaging department fired up the automated equipment that inserts grocery ads, television listings and other inserts into the paper. The C section was a jacket for those inserts; the inserts are placed into the section and the completed packages were set aside.
When the final press run began, the C-section packages were sent through the insertion equipment again and placed inside the A and B sections. (This is why the C section often appears before the B section in the paper, much to the annoyance of some of you.)
The completed papers are tied into bundles, compete with instructions for the carrier who will deliver each bundle, and sent out to our customers.
The final press run, as I mentioned, starts at 12:30 a.m. We need a little over an hour to print 17,000 copies of the paper. The insertion equipment is running at nearly the same time that the press is rolling, but it still takes a couple of hours to get the sections of the paper into their final package. We’ve committed to our carriers that they will have bundles ready for delivery no later than 3:30 a.m. We haven’t given ourselves much room to deal with problems.
What kind of problems? For a week or two at the start of February, we couldn’t get some new insertion equipment to work properly, especially on the Saturday mornings when we typically have a lot of inserts. The result was late papers, among the most dreadful things that can happen around here.
Other problems that crop up, usually at the worst possible times, range from breaks in the giant webs of paper that wind through the press to computer files that refuse to print in a way that they can be used on the press. And when everything else goes right, something mundane such as a broken water line on a press unit keeps us scrambling in the wee hours.
Jack Moorhead, the retired publisher of The Union, often referred to the newspaper as “the daily miracle.” When I watch the press and distribution crews at work, I know what he’s talking about.
(If you’re interested in seeing this for yourself, give me a call at 477-4235. I’ll lead a tour through our plant for the first eight people who call. The tour will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday and will last about an hour.)
John Seelmeyer is editor of The Union.
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