Star's Printing Press Keeps on Rolling
Experienced pressmen make sure newspaper gets to readers
By Joel Danoy
WINCHESTER — The smell of oil, grease, paper and ink emanate from the newspaper printing press as the safety bell signals the machine is about to “inch over,” a reference to the ink rollers slowly getting started.
The clock reads 1 a.m. — the nightly deadline for press foreman Glen Stickel and his five-member crew to begin printing the upcoming day’s edition of The Winchester Star.
Press workers run up and down the 90-foot printing press in The Star’s north building at 2 N. Kent St.
They periodically grab papers off the conveyor, inspecting for proper color alignment, imperfections and overall product quality.
“You have to be quick on your feet and be constantly checking,” Stickel said. “Everything must be balanced and aligned because if it’s a fraction of an inch off, the quality is going to be poor.”
Nearly 38,000 images are transferred from the ink rollers to the paper every hour, for a rate of about 20,000 complete editions in that time — roughly the daily paid circulation of The Star.
Like clockwork, this process of checking, adjusting and refining the final product repeats itself every night — except on Saturdays, since The Star has no Sunday edition.
Established July 4, 1896, The Star is celebrating its 115th anniversary this year.
In 1964, the newspaper became the first daily publication in Virginia to install an “offset” printing press, replacing the “hot metal” letter printing process.
It’s called offset printingbecause the printing plate never directly touches the paper. The image on the plate is transferred to a rubber “blanket” on a roller that is offset to the paper for the final impression.
The Star’s latest press, installed in 1981, has undergone several changes over the years to improve the final product and to stay current with technological advances in the industry.
Preparation is the key
Arriving around 5 each afternoon, Stickel and his staff immediately begin conducting preventive maintenance — the most important aspect of their jobs.
Paper and ink rollers are adjusted to assure a proper alignment while printing. The printing press is wiped clean of any excess grease or ink. The gears are lubricated to ensure a smooth nightly run.
Accounting for nearly 75 percent of their duties, maintenance on the eight-unit 15-foot-high printing press is essential to keep the nearly 30-year-old Goss Urbanite 1300 running its two 150-horsepower motors.
Stickel said it’s much easier to maintain the machine through maintenance than to replace one of its eight units.
It would cost several million dollars to purchase a new press, he said. Refurbishing units can be done for far less cost than purchasing new units.
The expenses of maintaining aging printing presses have prompted several daily publications — among them The Danville Register & Bee, The News Leader in Staunton and The Herald-Mail in Hagerstown, Md. — to outsource the printing of their newspaper.
“We just can’t afford to have anything go down during press time or we’re going to be in big trouble,” Stickel said. “That’s why it’s that old and still running good — the parts are kept clean.”
Originally installed with an analog format, the printing press in recent months has undergone a technological upgrade to a digital format, which improves its longevity and durability while eliminating the costs of scarce parts.
“Some of the parts are not made any more for analog and if you do find them, they are at an astronomical price,” Stickel said. “The whole press runs a lot better with digital — stronger and smoother. It makes the press motors run better.”
A cleaner image
While the printing press is being prepared, designers in the newsroom use computers to place the next day’s stories onto the virtual pages of the paper.
The final designs are exported from the newsroom’s computer system to a high-tech database in the production area that transfers the page images onto laser-etched printing plates — the first step in converting the pages from a digital to hard-copy format.
These plates, made of aluminum, are sold for recycling after they’re used.
According to Stickel, what used to be a three-step process, taking nearly three hours to create one plate, is now reduced to about 15 minutes with the installation of the laser plate-maker about two years ago.
“It’s less hands-on, and the less people dealing with the plate, the better,” Stickel said. “It creates a cleaner image and the laser printer gives us a better definition of the color and black.”
The finished plates must be used or covered immediately, since more than an hour of exposure to light will ruin the plate.
Once finished, the plates are carried by hand to the printing press, where they are placed on the plate rollers.
“Now we’re ready to get printing,” Stickel said. “At this point, we just have to start the press.”
Getting ready to roll
Hanging from the two ends of the printing press, the paper rolls weigh in at 680 pounds each. The 22-inch-wide White Birch paper has seen a dramatic reduction in size — gradually dwindling from 31 inches wide nearly 32 years ago when Stickel began his printing career at The Star.
“It’s still a good quality-grade paper, but with today’s economy and the way prices are, that’s what the industry is going to now,” Stickel said. “[The size] has been coming down gradually, so who knows where it’s going [from here]?”
All newsprint used at The Star is at least 40 percent recycled content. Misprints and paper scraps are bundled and sold for recycling.
The press room is kept at about 70 degrees — the perfect printing temperature.
Paper rolls are brought into the press area on the night before so they can adjust to the room’s climate.
If the room is too cold, the paper will become brittle and could tear. Too hot, and it will feel wet and the ink won’t be fully absorbed into the paper, causing it to smudge when touched.
“That’s critical — we must have the paper ready to print on,” Stickel said.
During a typical run of 20,000 editions, eight rolls of paper are used. The press has four paper runs occurring at one time and each run takes two rolls.
Spinning off the roll, the paper enters a series of giant metal rollers that transfer the plate image onto the paper.
Ink by the barrel
Ink, water and paper are the key ingredients during the printing process.
However, like a fine recipe, the blend must be exact.
Too much water makes the image appear too light and gray, while too much ink causes the image to smudge.
“It’s a delicate balance that we have to find,” Stickel said.
At a rate of 400 gallons a month, black ink is used the most during the printing process. Three soybean-based color inks are also used — cyan (blue), magenta (red) and yellow.
The ink is called “low-rub,” which reduces smudging by drying faster on the paper.
On average, 100 gallons of color ink — including 55 gallons of red — are also used during a 30-day period. “Red is a more dominant color, and it’s what makes the pictures,” Stickel said.
Not a drop is wasted, as all unused ink is scraped off the press and filtered through a separation system that removes lint particles that accumulate from the paper during printing.
Simply mix one 5-gallon bucket of dirty ink with four 5-gallon buckets of black ink, Stickel said, and an ink recycler — which holds up to 50 gallons of recycled ink — mixes all the ink together. The ink then filters into a 1,585-gallon bulk tank until it’s reused again.
“You can mix anything with black because black is a dominant color and it will override all the other colors,” he said.
Empty ink barrels are scraped of remaining ink and also sold to recycling.
To maximize the smooth transfer of ink onto paper, the paper must maintain 50 pounds of pressure. The tension ensures that four critical aspects of the page are properly aligned.
Stickel and his team grab papers off the conveyor, checking for the alignment of page numbers, colors, margin widths and that photos are in registration — the method of correlating overlapping colors into one single image.
“When we’re looking at the pages, you have to have an eye for the small imperfections,” Stickel said.
Hot off the press
With images and text transferred to paper, The Star enters its final stages of production.
After passing through the printing units, the paper is fed into an upside-down triangle called a “former board.”
Pages are then sent through the “folder” — at a rate of 35,000 copies per hour — where they are folded and cut to size.
“The paper that comes shooting out is the final product,” Stickel said.
A conveyor belt carries papers up from the press floor level to mailroom/circulation area in the next room, where special advertising supplements are inserted in each edition. The newspapers are bundled, loaded onto delivery trucks and transported to storefronts, homes, mail and street vendor boxes.
“From start to finish, it takes us about two to three hours to print each night,” Stickel said. “Since The Star began printing, it has never missed a publication, and it’s not going to happen on my watch.”