Sometime around 1950 I first saw a full-size newspaper printing press. Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry had—probably still has—a rotary letterpress unit about the size of a multi-story house on display- -formerly it was used by the Chicago Tribune.
I didn’t really know much about newspaper printing until I became a newspaper carrier in the 1950s. The Montrose Daily Press owned and operated a flat-bed letterpress unit used for a press run of maybe 12-1500 newspapers a day. Back then everything was hot metal type, using Linotype machines to cast each line in a story or column. The print shop smelled of hot metal and there were metal filings everywhere. The printing press looked and sounded like a steam locomotive. Each page was placed on the press and included type, headlines, and engravings for each photograph—all black and white.
The flat-bed press was fine for a small press run, but way too slow for anything much bigger. The rotary press was faster and could print more pages. For the rotary press each page was turned into an impression and then cast on a rotary drum.
This was the way newspapers were produced until the photo offset method, which became popular in the 1950s and 1960s and is the most common printing method today. Photo offset is similar to photographic printing. is made on a metal sheet. It is cleaner, less labor intensive, and allows much better photograph reproduction. Many newspapers began printing in color as a result of the easier process.
Relatively few newspapers, especially weeklies, operate their own printing presses these days.
Most large newspapers now also use photo offset and the result is more color photography and more flexibility in layout and design. The technology has changed, but creating a newspaper remains more or less the same as always—reporting, editing and final production. Think about it: Schools teach us to read. Newspapers give us a reason to read.
WARREN DOMKE is a columnist for the Pleasanton Express.