At my first newspaper job after college I was on the night news desk, where your shift didn’t end until you checked the first copies of the next day’s paper as they came off the printing press.
That was cool.
Of course, when I wanted to go home it wasn’t quite so cool to wait that extra half hour, often past midnight, for the huge printing press to finally start churning out a few newspapers so us last editorial folks in the building could make sure there weren’t any major errors to fix before thousands of papers were made.
But now I know how special it was to watch the press transform all the blood, sweat and tears of everyone in the building into a neat package I could hold in my hands. Those were moments of pride and wonder unlike any others.
For those moments, though, I had to brave another realm, one carefully separated from the newsroom by a claustrophobic hallway and a very heavy door that I was only supposed to open when the press wasn’t running. Even with the press quiet I found that room overwhelming: The size, the smells, the lights, and especially the faces of all the near-strangers anxious for me to leave without finding a reason for them to strip the press and start their work over.
But the worst thing I could do was barge in when the behemoth was at full blast, like I did the time I got to order, “Stop the presses!”
It was a Saturday afternoon and the first two sections of the Sunday paper were already being printed when I happened to check one of the pages my co-worker prepared and saw a mistake that had to be corrected. A crucial “r” was missing in the main feature’s headline, so it yelled: “beast cancer.”
I ran to the press room and flung open the heavy door. Most of the workers inside didn’t notice, as they all had thick ear protectors on and were busy getting the first run done so they could prepare for the next, but the supervisor looked at me when the door opened.
Knowing he couldn’t hear a darn thing even if I shouted at the top of my lungs, I just dragged my index finger across my throat, and he signaled to stop the press. As the machine ground to a halt I showed him the error to prove my demand was necessary, then hurried back to the newsroom, where my co-worker had already fixed the typo and started the many-step process of creating all new negatives and plates so the press could start again.
I will never forget the sights and sounds of that day, just as I will never forget what it was like to hold a freshly printed newspaper and smell the ink staining my fingers.
If there is a temple of journalism, it is the press room: A huge space that demands humility, inspiring prayers and pleas of forgiveness from those who enter. Even the notoriously robust ego of a journalist is easily shrunk when that massive machine shows just how small a part one person plays in putting out a newspaper.
And seeing all the time, energy and money it takes to create that roll of information, which will soon be dropped in thousands of driveways, it’s hard not to pray — Pray that you don’t find any mistakes to stop the press, but also that you do find the really bad ones.
Of course we humans can’t catch all our mistakes, so we also ask for plenty of forgiveness in the press room, both for the minor typos and the major missteps. And while the finality of the press run can be terrifying, few end-of-shift rituals are as tangible and triumphant.
A few years later, that newspaper (The Vallejo Times-Herald) shut down its printing press to cut costs, and I haven’t gotten to watch another press run since, as every other newspaper I’ve worked at no longer had a press in the building to create their papers on site.
Seeing a press run is something I’ve sorely missed, not just because of how cool it is to watch one, but because that machine felt like the beating heart of the newspaper. When every day you’ve spent in an industry you’re told it’s dying, it’s very comforting to have that heart close by, where you can check on it any time you want. If it’s far away all you can do is hope it’s still alive, ready to keep bringing the words you love to life.