After more than 10,700 editions of the Monitor, press nears its final days

  • Scenes from what might be the last run of the printing press in the Monitor's buildilng at Sweallls Falls, July 26, 2019 David Brooks—Monitor Staff

  • Scenes from what might be the last run of the printing press in the Monitor's buildilng at Sweallls Falls, July 26, 2019 David Brooks—Monitor Staff

  • Scenes from what might be the last run of the printing press in the Monitor's buildilng at Sweallls Falls, July 26, 2019 David Brooks—Monitor Staff

  • Scenes from what might be the last run of the printing press in the Monitor's buildilng at Sweallls Falls, July 26, 2019 David Brooks—Monitor Staff

  • Scenes from what might be the last run of the printing press in the Monitor's buildilng at Sweallls Falls, July 26, 2019 David Brooks—Monitor Staff

  • Scenes from what might be the last run of the printing press in the Monitor's buildilng at Sweallls Falls, July 26, 2019 David Brooks—Monitor Staff

  • Scenes from what might be the last run of the printing press in the Monitor's buildilng at Sweallls Falls, July 26, 2019 David Brooks—Monitor Staff

  • Scenes from what might be the last run of the printing press in the Monitor's buildilng at Sweallls Falls, July 26, 2019 David Brooks—Monitor Staff

  • After nearly 30 years, the Monitor’s printing press nears its final run. David Brooks / Monitor Staff

  • Scenes from what might be the last run of the printing press in the Monitor's buildilng at Sweallls Falls, July 26, 2019 David Brooks—Monitor Staff

  • Production Manager Harry Green stands in front of the flexomatic press in the Concord Monitor building. The press started printing the ‘Monitor’ in 1990 and has produced more than 10,500 editions in the years since. BELOW: Plates roll on the press during a recent run. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/15/2019 9:30:34 PM

Twenty-nine years ago, as the Concord Monitor moved into its new building alongside Sewalls Falls, we were especially proud of a new flexographic press.

“With this issue, the Monitor introduces a high-tech printing press with some down-to-earth advantages,” said a staff article in the March 5, 1990 paper. It was accompanied by a half-page illustration of the complex routing path that newsprint takes through the two-story machine, as well as a photo of the gleaming new press.

Today, after churning out more than 10,500 editions of the Monitor at up to 18,000 copies an hour, not to mention tens of thousands of editions of other newspapers, advertising inserts and all sort of commercial jobs, the press isn’t gleaming any more. But it’s still chugging away as it nears its final days, even if it doesn’t run very often and needs a lot more tender loving care when it does.

“We have to use a roll of tape to keep the pressure on … and keep the ink in,” said Roger Sullivan, distribution director, demonstrating an impromptu jury-rigging that involved shoving items against a roller during a recent press run.

“Yeah, it’s an old machine,” agreed Shaun Abbott, a pressman who started here at age 21, almost two decades ago. “But it still runs pretty well.”

An end but alsoa transition

The closure of presses has been a common story in New Hampshire in the past decade as the newspaper industry has gone digital and consolidated, with presses in Manchester, Nashua, Dover and Lebanon going quiet, getting shipped overseas or sold for scrap. The upcoming end to the Sewalls Falls press isn’t that sad a story, however, because the Monitor has shifted its printing to a new offset press on the west side of the Merrimack River, in the former Rivco plant in Penacook.

So it’s a transition rather than an ending for the Monitor, but it’s going to be an ending for the blue, two-story press that was the centerpiece of the Monitor’s move out of downtown in 1990.

“It’s hard to believe it was that long ago,” said Harry Green, Monitor production manager. Green started at the Monitor right out of Concord High School in 1982, when the Monitor was still an afternoon paper printed on North State Street and was part of the move into the Sewalls Falls facility in 1990.

“It was a bit scary. It was a challenge,” Green said of the new press.

For one thing, the new press was much larger. It was double-width rather than single-width, meaning it could print four pages across at once, which allowed for many different configurations of sections. “It helped us get more commercial work,” Green said.

As importantly, however, it was a new technology known as flexographic, which was popular in Europe and just taking off in the U.S.

Commercial presses work by transferring words and pictures onto flexible plates of some material, such as aluminum or polymer, in such as way that four colors of ink – black, cyan, magenta and yellow – stick to text and photos as needed. Workers put these plates on large rollers and then pass newsprint over the rollers at high speed so the ink is pressed onto the paper, in just the right amount and just the right places.

The new press was a challenge, said Green, because of many differences between flexographic and the previous system known as offset printing. This included different systems of plates, different orientation of rollers, and flexo’s use of water-based rather than petroleum-based ink. “The ink won’t come off on your hands!” the Monitor crowed to readers in that 1990 story.

Over the years the flexographic system proved a success both for the Monitor and her sister paper, the Valley News, which installed a similar press in West Lebanon. But the technology never caught on with the U.S. printing industry, causing an increasingly serious problem: Shortage of plate suppliers.

“At first there were two suppliers. Then there was just one, in California,” said Green. More recently that production shifted to England, meaning the Monitor had to order plates months in advance. Worse, the price went up and up, raising costs in an industry that increasingly needs to cut them.

The price of plates was the final straw that led Newspapers of New England, the Monitor’s parent company, to make the roughly $4 million decision to return to offset printing. It has bought a new press installed in the old Rivco building for both the Monitor and Valley News, consolidating printing and distribution for the newspapers and commercial customers. Plate supply and cost shouldn’t be a problem any time soon: There are at least 10 to 15 producers of offset plates around, Green said.

This might be good for the company and for customers – officials say improvements in chemistry mean the return to offset printing won’t cause ink to come off on readers’ hands – but it leaves the Sewalls Falls press without a future. The building, too: the Monitor has put it up for sale, and plans to shift the newsroom, advertising and back-office functions to a smaller, less expensive site in the Concord area.

Final runs

On a recent evening, Sullivan and Abbott prepared the flexographic press to print an edition of the Laconia Daily Sun.

They checked the pans of ink, assuring proper ink flow, made sure the right plates were on the right rollers in the right configurations, made sure the 55-inch-wide newsprint was coming off each of the 2,000-pound rolls of paper, that the paper stayed taut enough but not too taut as it wound its way over more than a dozen rollers, snaking and back and forth in a complex pattern that maintained paper tension, providing drying time between colors and leaving enough wiggle room to adjust alignment as needed.

Along the way the paper was cut and folded on the fly, producing thousands of the multi-section newspaper that went rattling down conveyors into the adjoining distribution room. About a dozen people, including the two pressmen, were involved that night creating the paper, putting them into bundles and loading them into trucks so they could eventually end up in readers’ hands.

“I used to say I wish I had a job where I could sit and read the paper all night. Now I do,” joked Sullivan, whose job includes flipping through papers as they get printed to ensure that everything’s okay.

Abbott agreed, although he pointed to a downside. “When my relatives and in-laws find errors in the paper, they always tell me. They seem to think that I’m the guy to fix them. I say: I just print it, I don’t write it!”

The press run lasted roughly three hours from start to finish, with no surprises. Just like thousands before.

One of these days, a similar run will happen for the last time. It’s not certain when it will happen, as the press is still being used for occasional supplemental runs, and there’s unlikely to be any kind of ceremony. The press is likely to be sold for scrap metal.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)




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