Pressroom nostalgia and the decline of print
The most important lesson you learn about newspapers when you’re five is that you must never wear your good shoes into the pressroom.
The floors are covered in ink, and are as slippery as they are colourful. It only took a few solid steps into the dark, industrial pressroom to get enough ink on your soles to leave marks everywhere for the rest of the day.
The presses were always silent when my father carried me through the bowels of the Ottawa Citizen, and I was always vaguely terrified to know that when night fell they would roar to life and spit out tens of thousands of newspapers while everyone slept.
Three decades later, those presses still crank out newspapers every night in spite of all the challenges facing the newspaper industry. Ad sales are down – that’s an old story. Readers are moving online – it only makes sense that they want news as soon as it breaks and that they’d want to read it while they are out in the world doing whatever it is they do.
But whenever people start talking about the death of the printed newspaper – and as a reporter many people seem to take a special sort of interest in detailing the industry’s challenges to me – it’s not the news stories that I worry about. They’ll be fine.
It’s the romance and grit of an industry that has been in my family for at least three generations. My grandmother worked in the mailroom. My father is a printer who learned his trade in the 1970s when hot lead was still used to make newspaper pages.
Stop and think about this for a minute – just some 40 years ago dozens of men (women came later) sat in a room with a bucket of molten lead in the middle and created giant metal slabs full of letters and images that would miraculously be turned into pages for the next day’s paper.
It was dirty, industrial work for about a decade – until computers meant they could use printed stories, wax machines and knives to paste pages together on an easel. They’d take pictures of the finished pages, and these images would go on the press. Progress, mostly, except for the people who lost their fingertips as they raced to get pages slapped together on deadline.
This was the way it worked for another decade, until desktop publishing software started to really breakthrough in the mid-1990s, right around the time that I started journalism school. You could make a page while sitting at your desk, no knives or hot lead needed (nor an apprenticeship, for that matter).
These jobs don’t exist at many newspapers anymore, and by the time my father retired he spent most of his shift waiting for something to do. Indeed, the Citizen is now sending most its content to Hamilton via the Internet, where its parent company owns a page factory full of production workers who build hundreds of pages a night for papers across the country.
In a matter of 40 years, the newspaper industry has gone from hot lead to fibre optics. Entire layers of the newspaper’s former workforce no longer exist in-house thanks to the technological innovations of the last two decades.
It wasn’t just the pressroom that held my fascination as a kid. Photographers still had their darkrooms, with their secret entrances that ensured no light ever entered their space. And there was a giant room where scores of people would insert papers by hand, making sure that everyone had a TV Guide or grocery store flyer in their paper the next day.
I would get to know the mailroom intimately as I got older, spending most of my high school years working Friday and Saturday overnight shifts manning the now-mechanized inserting stations that required humans to feed them as papers raced underneath on conveyor belts.
The mailroom was a dangerous mix of blue collar lifers, recent immigrants, transient laborers and stupid high school kids whose parents worked at the Citizen and managed to land them jobs that paid almost double minimum wage.
I’m sure none of them would have sent us if they knew what we were up against every night when the shift bell rang. Drugs were rampant, and almost everyone (teenagers included) would head to the nearby bar before closing time to get as hammered as possible on their lunch break.
On a good night it was amazing fun, and if you worked it out right you could sleep it off in the mailbags while a buddy covered for you. The work was physical, so we were always in pretty great shape from lifting thousands of bundles of newsprint a night.
On a bad night, truck drivers tried to kick your ass in the parking lot for screwing up their loads or making them wait too long. Forklifts crashed into each other as drunk teenagers raced with loads of inserts, and careless smoking in the loading bays meant fire extinguishers were refilled on a monthly basis.
It was good work, but not the place to build a career. As the papers raced out of the pressroom and passed over our heads in the mailroom, I’d think about how it would be better if I were writing the news sections rather than stuffing them full of furniture ads.
It took almost another 10 years before I made the final decision, but when I did, my father was able to use some connections to help me jump the waiting list and get into journalism school (despite my dismal high school grades and lack of any sort of portfolio).
And I’ve been writing stories ever since, mostly for newspapers. But I’m not worried about keeping it that way; I really don’t care about the means of distribution when it comes to the content I produce. News is being read, and that has to ultimately be a good thing for anyone who cranks it out.
But as we rely less on the printed paper, it’s the messiness of the production process that I will miss: the buckets of lead, the waxing machines, colleagues on their hands and knees searching for a compositor’s fingertip – all the stuff that nobody ever thinks about when they think about delivering the news.
That’s the stuff that myths are made of, and those are the reasons so many of us cling to news in its printed form. The last newspaper I worked at that had an operational printing press in the building was the Peterborough Examiner. At the end of a long shift, I’d wander into the back of the building and sign off on the negatives that would be used to print the next day’s paper.
A half-hour later, the building would vibrate as the presses came to life and began to crank out their nightly 20,000-copy assignment. I’d grab one of the first pages off the pile, anxiously reading for any typos or major screw-ups that we somehow missed all day long.
Those presses are gone now, shipped to some South American city. The papers print in another city now and are trucked into town each day. But I’ll never forget what it felt like to walk through the pressroom and see that first paper roll off, knowing all the layers of work it took to put it together. As fancy as that newfangled Internet thing is, it’ll never be able to reproduce the rumble of an old, well-maintained printing press.
I’d often think back to the Citizen as I wiped my boots off on my way out the door, and how the lesson about not wearing good shoes only applied to people who didn’t work in the building. Anyone who was part of the process should want ink on their boots, I know that now.
Not that pixels aren’t great and all – they are. I have more tools at my disposal as a reporter now than at any other time in history. But there’s something to be said for leaving a permanent mark wherever you go, even if it’s only an inky footprint.