VIDEO: End of an era: Modernization prompts move to newer presses

DAVE PHILIPPS Updated: April 12, 2013 at 12:00 am • Published: April 12, 2013 0

Stop the presses.

Early this morning, after 141 years, The Gazette printed its own newspaper for the last time.

It doesn’t mean The Gazette will cease to exist in print. Subscribers will still get their paper Tuesday. It will just be printed at a plant in Denver.

But it does mean another step in the long march of modernizing the news: For the first time in the history of Colorado Springs, the iconic throb of the massive steel machines that have been the heart of the newspaper and the pulse of the community are silent.

“It’s been a hell of an experience,” Mike Mitchell, the lead pressman, yelled over the roar of the presses on a recent night. In the era of the iPad, it’s unlikely a big commercial press will run in Colorado Springs again, so it is worth taking a moment to look back.

The Gazette has been printing its own paper since Englishman J. Elsom Liller, acting as editor, publisher, reporter and pressman, started literally cranking out copies one at a time in 1872. The newsroom was on the ground floor of the city’s first two-story building at what is now Tejon Street and Colorado Avenue. Liller and his wife slept in the back room. The upstairs served as the city’s school/meeting room/armory/fire department/museum.

RELATED: The Gazette's publishing timeline

Putting a paper together has evolved much through the decades. Liller set type by hand, hung copies to dry on string strung through the rafters, then delivered the paper by horse. Now, computer-generated aluminum plates on steel wheels run 60,000 copies per hour that are shipped by a fleet of trucks.

For all the changes, the fundamental act of putting fact on paper has remained as black and white as the type.

In the first century of The Gazette, the power of the press laid largely in the physical press itself. There were few other ways to reach such a broad audience. The only way to really battle the press was with another press.

In the 1870s, Colorado Springs had a law against selling alcohol and The Gazette was fervently anti-liquor. The saloon interests knew their only chance at swaying the public was to start their own paper. The Colorado Mountaineer, as it was called, ran screeds against teetotalers. Their efforts didn’t work. The town remained dry until Prohibition was repealed decades later.

In the mid-1920s, the Ku Klux Klan took control of most state and local governments in Colorado and wanted to take control of Colorado Springs’ City Council and school board.

The Gazette battled the Klan from the start, running fiery editorials and a front-page letter in 1924 from an anonymous group called the “buckshot brigade” that said it would do anything to fight the Klan.

The Klan responded in 1925 by printing its own paper, called The Colorado Springs Independent (no relation to the current alternative weekly).

The Gazette presses hit the Klan hard just before the 1925 election, publishing the most damaging facts it could: The names, addresses and occupations of the Klan officers.

Rumors circulated that the Klan planned to bomb The Gazette’s presses in response. The city posted police with a machine gun outside The Gazette’s building and stationed sharpshooters at the windows, according to The Gazette. The attack never happened and a few days later the Klan lost the election.

Every night since, with only a few exceptions, The Gazette presses have rolled out the news of the day.

A strike by the pressmen in 1947 silenced the presses for two days. The Gazette fired the union pressmen, who went across town and started their own newspaper, the Colorado Springs Sun. The two were rivals for decades until The Gazette bought the Sun in 1986 and shut down its presses.

The presses at The Gazette churned on. When they were running, the whole building shook. In the morning, the first reporters arriving could smell sweet, oily ink on the air.

At night, anyone who lingered after deadline and wandered to the lower levels, past the tranquil, air-conditioned room where the Web servers hum, could grab a pair of earplugs and push open the doors of the press room.

Inside, the presses, bright red and three stories high, roared like locomotives. On the lowest level, men in worn blue shirts shunted rolls of paper heavy as horses from dollies onto steel spools designed to feed a never-ending ribbon of newsprint into the works. Up a narrow steel staircase, more pressmen, often with ink stains up to their elbows, communicated by impromptu sign language amid the roar as they tinkered with dozens of knobs and glowing buttons.

Throughout the night, they set aluminum plates on the steel wheels, bailed excess ink from catch basins, and dove a quick, practiced hand in to snatch copies of the paper from the run.

The ink saturation and water mix had to be just right. The four colors had to line up exactly.

The pressmen scanned the pages like hawks for any nick or smudge, then dashed back to the knobs and buttons that fine tune the print.

Finished papers flew out in a blur, swinging down conveyor belts to “the mailroom” two stories down where a nocturnal army loaded them onto trucks.

The Gazette’s presses, installed in the 1980s, were, as one publication in 2010 kindly called them, “vintage.” Though they once could print 60,000 copies per hour, by 2012 it was a bad idea to run the old girls faster than 30,000. They broke down often.

“They are ancient dinosaurs,” Mitchell said. “It’s hard to get parts. But we do our damnedest, and we do a hell of a job with what we got.”

The advent of the Internet offered a cheap and fast alternative to the physical press. Anyone can broadcast to anyone. But the trust the generations of presses helped The Gazette forge with the community is as valuable as ever.

The men who worked the presses — and it was only men with the exception of one short-lived woman several years back — had a gruff respect for their critical role in the newspaper.

“You learn to love it,” said Ben Poynter, who has worked on the presses for four years, as he pushed a roll of paper. “It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life. Some of these guys don’t know anything else.”

One pressman is thinking of moving to Minnesota, Poynter said, where another newspaper still runs the same presses.

Like most industries, modernization at The Gazette means fewer jobs. In the last century the newspaper, which was once the city’s largest employer, has shed scores of newsboys, typesetters and other employees.

This week, the positions of about 50 people who operate the press and the folding, stuffing, stacking and trucking operation that gets the paper out every day were eliminated.

“People were upset when they heard,” said Mitchell, who has worked for The Gazette for 19 years. “But we still give 100 percent. We take a lot of pride in what we do.”

Publisher Dan Steever has estimated The Gazette will increase the number of employees in its news, advertising and other operations by at least 20 percent in 2013. He also said the number of pages in The Gazette has increased by 15 percent since November, and more expansion is planned.

Contact Dave Philipps 636-0238

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