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Pressing on

Submitted by yelvington on January 9, 2013 - 4:09pm

In my new job in Savannah, I'm responsible for print as well as digital audience. It's been awhile since I last dealt with print -- I've been working on the digital side since 1994. A lot has changed since then. Today Sean Ruth, our production chief, gave me a look at this:

This is one of the three (yes, really) presses in the News building on Chatham Parkway. It's a manroland Uniset with a configuration that was new to me. In the old days, when "broadsheet" newspapers were actually broad, presses came in two basic configurations: single-wide (two pages wide) and double-wide (four pages). This one is three modern pages wide. With some magic involving slitters and angle bars, one of the pages gets routed away and slipped between the others at the folder.

This is a really nice machine that can print full color on every page at speeds of up to 80,000 copies per hour. But the part that impressed me was the computer technology that makes it economical to run.

Press operators wearing funny paper hats used to crawl around twisting knobs and dials adjusting ink and fountain solution and manually adjusting the registration -- the synchronization of the cyan, magenta, yellow and black printing units -- so color photos come out looking like photos instead of a Grateful Dead poster from the '60s.

It was an art. Now it's a science.

This press has a control computer that analyzes a PDF of page, knows the type of paper that's being used, figures out how much ink of each color should be available in advance, sets the flow controls digitally and starts up with usable copies after a few revolutions.

This is especially important for short runs, where waste used to be a big problem in offset lithography.

Color registration is automatically and continuously tuned by a system involving a video camera, a strobe light, and computer recognition of the image. The system reads tiny colored dots in areas of the page where you wouldn't notice them.

The results are beautiful.

The other two presses aren't used much these days. One is a Goss Urbanite, a single-wide press of the type that was used to print the first weekly newpaper I edited when I was 17. The other is the double-width Goss Metro, the type used for long-run newspaper printing at places like the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. They were once the kings of their respective hills, but seem clunky compared to the Uniset.

A lot of newspapers are getting rid of their presses -- including Morris papers in St. Augustine FL, Athens GA, Conway AR, and Topeka KS. But print still has roles to play in a digital world. High-tech printing centers like this one are picking up the work, providing higher quality, and operating as commercial printing profit centers.