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Fifty years ago just northwest of Pittsburgh, Beaver County's three dozen steel makers and fabricators employed more than 37,000 people, with other manufacturing putting at least 4,000 more on payrolls. Today, all manufacturing there provides fewer than a third of the jobs it did in 1958.

On a small scale, however, changes in the western Pennsylvania county merely reflect changes that occurred nationwide. Many cities and towns were late in replacing the industrial supports to area economies. But long after Rust Belt recoveries were under way, with many mills silent and smoke stacks razed, one big iron artifact of industrial America not only survives, but continues to serve several mostly midsized cites, from the Erie Canal to the Red River.

Until just a few years ago, a few very large newspapers still used letterpress or letterpress conversions. Today, only five midsize dailies operate solely on letterpress; a few, such as The Observer-Dispatch in Utica, N.Y., and the San Francisco Chronicle, print on machines converted years ago to direct lithography and flexography, respectively; and three -- in Pittsburgh, Trenton and Boston -- mix letterpress with flexo conversions or slip-in units. Of the last, the Boston Herald is considering contracting out its printing on Dow Jones & Co. offset presses.

Even among the handful of all-letterpress dailies, one is now installing offset equipment and another has announced plans to do the same. The remaining three, however, are confident that their mid-20th-century presses will run well into the 21st century.

Long history of service

Beaver has a record of holding onto what works. When Robert Linn died four years ago, at age 95, he was in his 15th consecutive four-year term as mayor of the county's seat. The Beaver County Times' Goss Headliner Mark I was then a mere 40 years old, and Press Supervisor Dave Mengel had been there about that long (he retired only a few weeks ago). But the six units and halfdeck still print Calkins Media's 38,814-circulation county daily, its Allegheny Times edition, the six-day, 3,341-circulation Ellwood City Ledger, and The Valley Tribune, a TMC product.

"For letterpress work, it's excellent," says Production Director Scott Kegel, who joined Beaver Newspapers Inc. a few years ago when it acquired his family's Ellwood City Ledger, where he served as general manager. That paper's Goss Community offset press is still available for work, but all Beaver Newspapers are printed on the larger letterpress.

Using its halfdeck and units 1 and 2, says Kegel, "we print four full-color pages every day on the front of our sections." Color also may run, when sold, on back and inside pages.

The press was installed in 1964, and "as near as we can tell, the folder was bought refurbished," Kegel says. "It's in very good shape. We're running it every night."

In accounting for the longevity of the press' service and the print quality extracted from it, Kegel hits notes familiar to his counterparts elsewhere: durable construction, scrupulous upkeep, and experienced operators who can make the most of a process relying on inkier images created with a lower line screen.

"We pride ourselves on the maintenance of that press," he says, while also acknowledging another challenge: "It's getting harder and harder to maintain, of course. We're looking at our options." By that he means singlewide offset -- at some point.

When it comes to service, Kegel says,"we do almost all of it ourselves." Sometimes collaboration works. In one recent instance, he recalls, the company relied on its own people, consulted a sister paper's staffer with letterpress experienced, and "picked Goss' brains, and we managed to solve the problem."

And until it exercises its offset option, Beaver Newspapers can scavenge parts from a Calkins sister paper across the state in Levittown, where the Bucks County Courier Times still has its even-older Mark I -- idle since production moved in 2004 to a MAN Roland offset-equipped remote plant.

"Surprisingly," adds Kegel, "parts are still available for this press" from Goss and other suppliers.

Unfortunately, that's not the case in platemaking, he continues, because the old NAPP machines are not made any more.

Also like his counterparts, Kegel is concerned with having only one supplier of plates -- MacDermid Printing Solutions' NAPP business -- and with their cost of "over six dollars a plate for a single page."

At the Albany, N.Y., Times Union, Production Manager Mike Mace echoes those concerns. Because his Head-liner was built to last, he says, "I'm more worried about the peripherals supporting the press than the press itself." He also notes the absence of computer-to-plate output for letterpress.

Beaver's press is run "with as few as five people, but we try to run it with six or seven each night," Kegel says.

For the seven-unit letterpress at the Herald-Dispatch, more than 300 miles down the Ohio River in Huntington, W.Va., "we typically like to have six people -- six people is ideal," says Production Director Richard Wright. "We can get by on certain products, depending on number of webs, with four or five," he continues. "Other nights we might have seven."

With a press twice the size of Huntington's, manning in Albany "is determined by the number of webs and units in a particular run, and we have an electrician and machinist on hand for every run," says Mace.

While some publishers face difficulty finding or training personnel to operate and maintain the latest highly automated offset presses, letterpress shops must recruit those who know or are willing to learn what is essentially an obsolete process.

Wright says his shop is fortunate in having had "most of these guys here for an awful long time." But some are coming up for retirement, he notes, adding that it does concern him. A union shop with a four-year apprenticeship, the Herald-Dispatch will look for someone with technical knowledge or aptitude and/or printing experience, not necessarily in letterpress, says Wright.

The last hire in Beaver came from a sheetfed operation and had to be trained, says Kegel. Even after Mengel's retirement, the pressroom crew includes some long-timers, among them some who worked on the Goss letterpress at the Vindicator in nearby Youngstown, Ohio.

Letting go of letterpress

In late 2006, the Vindicator announced it would replace its two Goss Mark II lines with offset equipment. With the letterpress to be scrapped, that change is now under way, with Goss equipment (stacked Metroliner units from the closed Los Angeles Times' Valley plant, MetroColor tower from the Daily Breeze, Torrance, Calif., 160-page folder with three-high formers, and 144-page folder at the end of the press), reconditioned and fitted with SSD unit-shaftless drives, being installed by Northeast Industries, according to the Yuma, Ariz., company's president, Sam Boyle.

The 55,900-circulation paper reported that its new press will be able to produce up to 40 of process color. The new equipment will occupy an empty press bay that General Manager Mark Brown credited his father, William J. Brown, with having the foresight to put into the existing building's plans.

Six weeks ago, another letterpress site signed on for reconditioned offset. When the Wifag OF790 -- acquired from a Swiss newspaper through Netherlands-based Graphic Web Systems -- is taken into production in 2010, The Times of Shreveport, La., will roll off in the compact Berliner format already adopted by its Gannett Co. sister paper, the Journal & Courier in Lafayette, Ind., and planned for the Reading (Pa.) Eagle in 2009.

The press destined for Shreveport already has the necessary 18-inch cut-off, but its web width will be reduced to 44 inches by GWS, which will make Times' pages an inch narrower than the Journal & Courier's. Several other Gannett and Schurz Communications dailies plan 44-inch web-width reductions.

In a turn-key agreement with GWS "that was driven and fortified by Gannett corporate," where Production Vice President Austin Ryan championed the project, training on the OF790 "was negotiated in our contract," says Times Production Manager Paul Ladouceur. "It makes a lot of sense if you can get Wifag-type training," he adds. "It's high on the list of our priorities."

First installed in 1991, the Wifag color towers -- six reelstands and two folders -- will replace an eight-unit Mark I with five halfdecks and 3:2 and 2:1 folders dating from 1961. But that's at least two years away. So the fate of the old press is as yet undetermined, Ladouceur says. The newer equipment will go up next to the newsprint warehouse in a press hall designed by Dario Designs. As for the space left by the old press, the Times plans to "optimize that as much as we can," says Ladouceur, adding that the opportunity is being studied to see what will make the most sense.

Ladouceur arrived in Shreveport in the summer of 2006 after working 26 years at the St. Petersburg Times, long a name in quality offset color, a few years at E.W. Scripps, and several more with Tribune Co.

Noting continued industrywide growth in demand for color, he says process color use today at the 52,030-circulation Shreveport daily is "absolutely to the point where we've been using everything we can get our hands on."

To that end, and with a view to the near future, Ladouceur says "we've been able to optimize what we have," even though it is letterpress. In 2007, for example, "for the first time ever we became SNAP certified." He calls certification in Specifications for Newsprint Advertising Production "a by-product of the new culture that we brought into Shreveport."

The aim was to put that culture in place as a bridge to the improved capabilities that will be available with an offset press. "We're setting the tone," he says, for the quality printing that will be expected with the new equipment.

On the efficiency side of production, here's what the offset operation will be up against: letterpress' 2.1% printed waste and 97% on time off the press in 2007.

Dilitho dies hard

With the installation, Gannett will no longer have any letterpress-printed newspapers. Since replacing the Journal & Courier letterpress with a MAN Roland Geoman for the Berliner format, it sold to GateHouse Media the letterpress-printed Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, W.Va., and The Observer-Dispatch, which prints on a letterpress-to-dilitho conversion in Utica, N.Y.

Two other dilitho conversions, however, sit idle -- at the Green Bay (Mich.) Press-Gazette, which transferred its printing in 2001 to Gannett Wisconsin East Group's MAN Roland Uniset offset press in Appleton, and at the Star-Gazette, Elmira, N.Y., which is now printed with two other dailies on Gannett Central New York Newspaper Group's offset KBA towers in Johnson City.

Kevin Corrado, publisher in Green Bay, is now working on disposing of the press and dealing with the distribution-area space it occupies -- which, if covered, would be useful for carriers' sorting work and provide more room for pallet loads of inserts, according to Corrado and Group Quality and Prepress Director Denise Corrado.

Elmira's old iron, however, isn't going to waste. In truckloads of parts, some of it has already gone to Utica, where the press has printed the 40,261-circulation Observer-Dispatch for 35 years. Before that, Utica's units were half of the press at Advance Publications' Syracuse Newspapers for more than 20 years. The other half became Elmira's press. The Observer-Dispatch began harvesting the parts last winter while still a Gannett property, confident of many years of operation left in its seven Mark I units with three humps.

"The iron itself is basically good, and with these original parts, we might be able to go another 10 or 20 years," Publisher Donna M. Donovan told E&P at the time.

By the 1980s, the Observer-Dispatch had converted from etched-plate letterpress to dilitho printing after vetting the process at former press maker Harris' Connecticut plant, recalls former Tech Services Manager Bob Mundrick, who retired in 2000 after 38 years at the Utica paper. With a speed follower of their own design, good maintenance, and dilitho's lighter plates, says Mundrick, the press crew's work was easier, although lithography required new skill in coping with the ink-water balance.

Advances in plates alone saved time and money while improving print quality. From the lead plates on its earlier Hoe and Goss letterpress equipment, the paper moved to 0.30-inch-thick, etched-zinc plates glued to blank lead plates, then to zinc and magnesium plates pinned to screwed-in steel saddles that replaced the lead shims, and finally to light, thin aluminum litho plates.

In a history of the Observer-Dispatch compiled two years ago, Mundrick writes that "plates which cost $5 were now costing $1. It also set the stage for future changes in the page-makeup area."

Plate screens rose from 60 to 72 lines per inch, giving consistently cleaner, sharper halftones; reaching for 85 lines sometimes led to plugging, according to Mundrick. It was during the first years of dilitho that Utica became one of the earliest sites -- if not the first -- to directly output laser- imaged plates. But the technology driving the early computer-to-plate system was too slow. The Eocom machines were removed. Today, the paper runs two Kodak thermal CTP platesetters.

But even though "it's been a pretty good press for us," reports Operations Director Gary Casey, the paper is not looking to use units from Elmira to add color. "Space-wise, we're at capacity now," he says. "We really couldn't add anymore." And since the Observer-Dispatch's sale to GateHouse, getting those parts is no longer as simple as a phone call and visit. "We have to go through more proper channels to make it happen," Casey notes -- adding, however, that the parts are still available, and that the Star-Gazette is happy to see the old iron disappear.

No strangers to offset

Utica's operation may produce the daily on a dilitho press, but it prints its weeklies and specialty publications on a Web Press Corp. offset press.

Similarly, the other newspaper divested to GateHouse early last April, Huntington's 27,239-circulation Herald-Dispatch, also relies on a smaller offset press to support its significant commercial printing business (E&P, May 2005; Nov. 25, 2002), while the daily rolls off what is likely the country's last operating letterpress manufactured by Wood Newspaper Machinery Corp.

The seven-unit Wood Metropolitan with three halfdecks started as four units in 1955. Two more were added a couple of years later. The last, a legacy of the defunct Sunday Independent in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., didn't arrive until 1997.

"The thing was built like a tank back in the '50s," says production chief Wright. "For its age, I would describe it as in excellent condition. She's proven to be very reliable over the years." He attributes that in large measure to a decades-long regimen of good maintenance. Daily cleaning, lubrication and other chores, combined with a comprehensive annual check-up, have paid off: no downtime.

Still, Wright concedes that in its looser-fitting parts and other ways, the machine shows its age. But for an arrangement similar to that of its former sister paper in Utica, that would be especially worrisome for the only operating Wood press. The Herald-Dispatch has a strong relationship with The Buffalo (N.Y.) News, which retains some of the three the 1956-57 Wood Metropolitan press lines it decommissioned when it began printing on KBA Coloras in 2004. A recent example of the News' "incredibly generous and supportive" behavior: About two years ago, the Herald-Dispatch e-mailed a photo of a broken part to the News, which removed the required part and shipped it to Huntington. When the News no longer could find parts at other papers, it made its own. "We have an extremely proficient machine shop. So we make them here," Executive Vice President Robert J. Cassell told E&P seven years before his paper switched to offset.

Although his paper still has a "tremendous stock of parts from Buffalo," says Wright, "we have had to have parts reverse engineered. Thankfully, it hasn't happened all that often." When needed, however, the work is performed a local shop or by Indianapolis-based Egenolf Machine Inc., which the newspaper brings in for two or three weeks every year to go through the press with a fine-tooth comb, according to Wright. Having a good technical and mechanical staff also helps keep the press in the best shape possible, he says, adding that the assured maintenance is "the only thing that lets me sleep at night."

When Gannett still had enough non-offset sites to make the category competitive, second place in the 2005 Optimum Quality Awards in 2005 went to Huntington.

"We can't run any back-to-back color, but we have the ability to run up to 16 pages of [process] color," Wright says. "Typically we run about 12 pages of color."

'The biggest letterpress left'

"We're still letterpress," says Mike Mace, in a matter-of-fact voice betraying neither complaint nor complacence. Warming to the topic, the production director adds, "I believe we're the biggest letterpress left in America."

By any measure, it probably is.

A Hearst daily with a circulation that rises from 90,216 weekdays to just under 143,000 on Sundays, the Times Union operates 10 Goss Headliner Mark II units and 4 Mark V units as two lines with its two folders, in a plant in Colonie, few miles northwest of Albany, N.Y.

After buying the Mark II units in 1970 or '71, adds Mace, "they immediately bought a few more units to complete it" -- the Mark V units. All were started up on the same day, he says. Although "the whole press was installed as a black-and-white press," the production manager continues, there are a couple of color humps, and some units haven't had a roll underneath them in years because they are color-only positions.

"We run a lot of color." We can run 12 [pages] in process color on each press," Mace says on a day when two products were running at the same time.

Like that at other sites, Times Union equipment is in good shape, thanks to technicians and machinists who have been there for quite a while.

Mace notes that while parts are still available from Goss, they may have to be made, which sometimes can take months. So, in a familiar tale, Albany has sent staffers to decommissioned sites for parts and has had to scrounge in an emergency.

As Elmira's Star-Gazette did for its then-Gannett sister paper in Utica, within Hearst Newspapers the Houston Chronicle supplied a technician from Albany with "three tractor trailer loads of parts," Mace recalls. He says visits to two more locations are planned this year for the purpose of scavenging parts.

Mace would like to move to offset, and says he is "at work on making a presentation to the board right now." For most of his almost 30 years in Albany, he adds, "I've seen this every three or four years," but this time, "I think we're a lot closer."

Prospects for a press change in Huntington, meanwhile, are less certain. Noting that the Herald-Dispatch and its commercial printing business were sold twice last year, Wright remarks, "2007 was quite the year for us." GateHouse sold the Herald-Dispatch to the local Champion Publishing Inc. barely five months after acquiring it from Gannett.

With two ownership changes, followed by the busy holiday season, Wright says he's not sure what the plans may be at this point. To satisfy his own interest in printing systems and the needs of his newspaper and commercial work, he adds that he'd like to see new equipment.

But owing to the good condition of the press, he says, even after 53 years "there's not an immediate need."
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Author:Rosenberg, Jim
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2008
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