When the press is up and running full bore, really humming, when newsprint meets ink in some wondrous alchemic alliance and speeds through rollers and cylinders in a dizzying blur, it is almost as if the hulking machine becomes a living, breathing organism, its syncopated click-CLACK-click of gears like a heartbeat.
But newspaper presses, as with most everything, have a lifespan, and for the trusty printing press that has served the Arizona Daily Sun well for 26 years at its current Thompson Street location and before that for decades at the paper’s downtown facility, that time is now.
After more than 80 years in operation, the presses in Flagstaff have gone silent. This very newspaper you hold in your hand is the last that will be printed here.
Publisher Colleen Brady announced last month that, starting with the May 11 edition, the newspaper will be printed at Phoenix’s Deer Valley facility and trucked up north. As Brady wrote in a recent letter to readers, “To stay competitive, many newspaper markets have centralized printing to more modern, multi-million-dollar, regional press facilities.”
So it goes for the aging press, one that former operations manager Bill Smith lovingly calls a “mongrel” because its parts and units were cobbled together from such far-flung locales as Paris, Chicago, Malaysia, Idaho and Petaluma, California.
It served the paper well these many years, done yeoman work. It chugged and churned along doggedly, never missing a deadline even through lightning-caused outages and the occasional fire, and now it will be put out to pasture like a washed-up thoroughbred.
Readers aren’t likely to notice a difference. The newer and sleeker press run by the Arizona Republic can spit out copies with impressive rapidity, and that should ensure that readers will always find their newspaper at their doorstep six mornings a week. In fact, to the increasing number of subscribers who read our stories, watch our videos and consume our photographs and graphics digitally, this is a non-issue.
But the print edition remains inextricably linked to a newspaper’s identity — it’s right there in its very name, a newspaper — so the shutdown of a press in this age of media consolidation is an occasion to pause and reflect and, perhaps, to mourn.
“It is sad to see,” said Smith, who retired in the summer of 2019 after 45 years of running the Daily Sun press room. “I remember when we bought most of these units. They weren’t new even then; they were completely reconditioned. Eight of the original units came from the University of North Carolina, where they printed the Tar Heel student paper. There was a fire, and the whole thing was sent to Pennsylvania to rebuild it. That’s when we got it.”
The press has weathered a lightning strike at its erstwhile downtown facility on Santa Fe Street, endured a massive motor burnout on a Thanksgiving evening and persevered through untold number of niggling mechanical hiccups over the years, kept chugging along even when parts sometimes had to be jerry-rigged or imported from Malaysia or Canada.
What the press could not overcome was the changing face of the industry, in which consumers of news are turning away from print in favor of pixels.
“That’s just the way things go,” veteran Daily Sun pressman Scott King said, “That’s progress. It’s a different era.”
And it’s an end of an era for pressmen such as King, Tom Kremble and Joe Mendyka. For years, they have been the embodiment of the old journalistic trope of the “ink-stained wretch.” Only, in more recent times, the ink that stains their hands and work shirts is not just black but a rainbow made up of magenta, cyan and yellow.
These workers are, as Smith boasts without a trace of hyperbole, “artists in what they do.”
“They have to do everything by hand, adjust all the color by hand, manipulating the keys and levers on the registration,” he said. “Too much yellow makes the people look like they have jaundice. Too much red, and it makes them look angry. They know by sight when to adjust the registration, which lessens the amount of paper going in between units, moving the registration up and down. They can move the registration dot for dot. It’s very impressive.”
The art of running a press
Watching press people in action is to witness craftsmen fully in sync with the hulking beast of a machine they operate. They almost seem to anticipate even the slightest variation in color registration or blurred lines, and give a firm yank or the barest nudge to the levers and keys that determine the amount of ink imprinted onto the page.
They do it by feel, by sight, even by touch — like a classical guitarist tuning the strings just so.
When the presses are rolling at full capacity, all cylinders firing and everything in alignment, it can print the Daily Sun’s 2,800 copies -- folded, cut and stacked -- in 10 to 12 minutes. (The newer, larger Deer Valley plant in Phoenix is even faster.)
But it’s not just a matter of fastening the newsprint to rollers, squirting the ink into trays from the barrels in the back of the room, and punching the button that rings a bell to set everything in motion. Workers must do several “run-ups,” getting the presses rolling at nearly full bore before grabbing the first few flawed copies and seeing where the register has gone awry.
Even after the fiddling of knobs to perfectly align the “register mark” — in the Daily Sun, that’s the plus sign readers can find just below the fold on each page — and making sure the three main colors besides black (magenta, cyan and yellow) don’t run or fade, the workers aren’t just sitting back and watching the machine roar to life.
They do “run-ups,” like a metaphorical guitarist testing the strings for sureness.
A digital image of the page is projected on a monitor, showing the exact color meant for the photographs and headlines and advertisements, and Kremple leans in to an early copy of a page with a magnifying loupe and sees where the dots do not align. Then, he squints at the screen, then back down to the page, to determine if the hues are exact.
“You can see,” Kremple said, shaking his head, “where we need to level it out.”
He turns to King, says, “Let’s do another run-up.”
This time, the presses run for another couple of minutes, before Kremple shuts it down again.
King has grabbed several copies of an inside color page with a large, multi-hued restaurant ad as its centerpiece. He spreads the pages from the first two “run-ups” on a table and compares. On the first, the blue cursive typeface bleeds into the red headline below it, and the photograph of the restaurant’s interior is washed out. The second run-up corrected most of that, but King still isn’t satisfied.
They are about to start the actual press run — for real, this time — and he makes a half turn of a lever before the press cranks up.
At this point, the press goes from the syncopated click-CLACK-click to a full roar. In mere seconds, it seems, pages are streaming down the two-story rollers and cascading into the folder, emerging in moments as cut and folded sections of the paper.
Kremple works the units to the left, King to the right. They both descend on the folded sections before they head up a conveyor belt to the stacker in the other room. They grab a copy, fling it open to a color page and then, discard it just as swiftly as they walk quickly to the units.
King walks to the unit closest to the floor-to-ceiling window looking out on Thompson Street and, still holding that color page in his left hand, with his right gives a tug or two to the lever on the side panel. Then he walks to the tray filled with cyan ink and chooses one specific key out of a series to pull down. Then he walks back to another unit and gives a quarter turn on several knobs and the slightest of pats to another lever before grabbing another printed section, ruffling the pages to peruse the one with that troublesome color ad, and makes more adjustments.
Newer presses, experts say, have precise calculations for making color adjustments, but with a press this old, it’s often done manually.
“We just give it a half-turn or something, give or take,” King said with a shrug. “It’s just by feel once you get used to running these things. The (levers) you can move toward or away from the pins to adjust (the alignment) and that moves all the other colors.”
A palpable adrenal rush is evident among the pressmen when the run is in full force. Even though the press gets a workout printing not only the Daily Sun but papers in Sedona and Page and other commercial endeavors, a large part of the job is maintenance on the two 75-horsepower drive motors and control panels.
Mesmerizing to watch
Sometimes, the press operators say, people walking along Thompson Street will stop and press their faces to the window and watch the thing in action.
“Yeah, they’ll look at us,” King said, “but when it snows, we can look out the window and see (cars) sliding around trying to make it up the hill.”
One reason it is fascinating -- almost mesmerizing -- to watch the press in action is that there are many moving parts. So many things that can go wrong, too.
But Kremple and Smith say the press has been admirably durable over the years. Veteran press operators have heard horror stories from other shops of ink pipes bursting and the floors being flooded with cyan and yellow.
That hasn’t happened at the Daily Sun, at least not any significant spillage, but there have been instances when the motor has conked out or a belt breaks or any number of gizmos go on the fritz.
“We had a fire in the control panel; this was about 20 years ago,” Smith recalled. “We could only print the paper half the capacity. This was on Thanksgiving night, biggest paper of the year.”
It would have taken days, maybe weeks, to get whoever “re-manufactured” the original Goss motor to come fix it, but Smith kept on retainer a local electrician, John Patton of Enviro Tech.
“The kid’s a genius,” Smith said. “He can go in and figure out anything wrong with the motors. And he came on Thanksgiving. He came in and had his nose in that panel and fixed it, stayed with it all weekend to make sure. I remember John called the manufacturers of the drives and motors (for advice) and they said, ‘Hey, bud, you know more about those drives than we do.’
“Another time, we had a stacker out here that went down. The stacker came from Illinois. To get somebody in here from that place was impossible. John came in and asked me, ‘Do you have any schematics?’ None came with it. I think we got that stacker from Escondido. But John just went in and started testing it here and there and, boom, he got it going. But for the most part, (the press) ran pretty well. These press guys keep up the maintenance. That’s the key.”
It is questionable whether the press, now silenced in Flagstaff, will see new life at another printing facility. It is, after all, more than a half a century old and has been pieced together, Frankenstein-like, from parts of other erstwhile presses.
Brady said there has been some interest from buyers for the press, but Smith isn’t so sure that it will remain intact. He’s both sentimental about the hulking mass of metal and brutally pragmatic.
“They’ll probably either sell it to any company that re-manufactures (presses) or just scrap it,” Smith said. “Years ago, I worked at the University of Maine Press, and when they shut it down — it was a letterpress back then, and they had wooden feed boards — after that last run, they took a took a fire axe and scrapped it.”