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Sunday’s Observer marks the end of the line for uptown presses

Each night for 87 years, a river of newspapers has thundered off giant printing presses at the corner of Stonewall and South Tryon streets in Charlotte. No more. You’re holding the last of its kind.

Monday’s Charlotte Observer and all that follow will be issued from a printing plant in University City that has printed the Wall Street Journal for decades. It was bought by the Observer in January for an undisclosed price from Dow Jones & Co.

If you’ve never seen a newspaper printing press in action, you’ve missed a mechanical marvel refined over six centuries. Big as a Brontosaurus, loud as a locomotive and balanced like a Swiss watch, the grand machines still lend their name even in this digital era to an industry collectively known as The Press.

Going silent at the Observer are four presses installed in the early 1990s to replace the antiquated machinery that went before them. Three stories tall and anchored in bedrock for stability, their footings are a story below street level, where 1-ton rolls of paper are pushed around on a labyrinth of narrow rails in what looks like a subterranean railroad switching yard.

Paper is fed upward, where it passes through ink rollers, then descends like a ribbon into a powerful blade that folds and chops each issue with a muscular thump. At cruising speed, the folder sounds like a deck of cards being shuffled in a magician’s grip, though ear protection must be worn against the din. Each unit snarfs a ton of newsprint in about 15 minutes.

From the folder, the newspapers are snatched by a conveyor that snakes up and drops them into a bundling machine two floors above, then the bundles slide down a chute to a trucking dock and then into the night for delivery.

Man and machine

Marty Fleming first saw the process on the night of May 23, 1968. He was a UNC Charlotte student starting a summer job in the pressroom.

“I thought, ‘I don’t know if I’m smart enough to do this. This is amazing.’ 

He was smart enough. He’s been in the pressroom ever since, moving up through the hierarchy of positions already well-established in Ben Franklin’s day: Fly boy, apprentice, pressman and boss.

“Fly boy is just what it sounds like,” Fleming says. “Whatever the pressmen told you to do, you did it.”

He’s the Observer’s longest-serving employee at 45 years, and that doesn’t even count his service as a boy with a paper route.

When Fleming started, printing plates were cast in metal and weighed about 50 pounds each. About twice a year, he recalls, one would shatter, hurling shrapnel through the pressroom, though he never saw anyone get hurt. He worked in the Observer plant built in 1927 and its successor, opened in 1970 at the same address.

It could be said Fleming has made more headlines in his career than anyone in town – Nixon’s resignation in 1974, Hurricane Hugo in 1989, the Carolina Panthers’ first game in 1995, the terrorist attacks in 2001 and the Big Snow of 2014.

Stop the presses!

So, in all those years, has anyone come down from the newsroom, like in the movies, yelling “Stop the presses!”?

“Well, here’s how it works,” says Fleming, emperor of night operations. “They call down and say, ‘Would you please stop the press?’ if they’ve caught an error or something. I remember once they had the wrong team in the Super Bowl.”

Worse was election night in 2000. Early editions rolled saying the race was too close to call. At 2:45 a.m., with the final edition printing, editors re-plated Page One to say George W. Bush had won, and the press cranked back up at top speed. In the next hour, Florida threw that result in doubt.

Fleming got an urgent call to please stop the press again. At 4 a.m., Page One was re-plated with the headline “Race for president is too close to call.” More than 40 percent of readers got a paper proclaiming Bush the winner.

There are other stop-the-presses stories, and pressman Mike Callahan’s is typical.

Press operators constantly check fresh copies of the newspaper to inspect the inking. One night, one of them noticed a photo of kids playing on some rocks. In the background of the rocks was some graffiti. In the graffiti was a very bad word. Callahan and crew idled the presses until the photo was replaced.

Time for change

In the early 1990s, the Observer replaced old presses with modern ones using a technology called flexography, a water-and-soy-based ink process. Flexo was one of the two emerging press technologies; offset was the other, using oil-based inks.

It was a Beta/VHS situation, says Richard Rinehart, regional vice president of operations for the McClatchy Co., which owns the Observer. Flexo was believed to deliver superior printing quality, but offset became the dominant technology.

Now there is only one producer – located in Great Britain – for flexo printing plates. Plates have grown increasingly expensive and the trans-Atlantic pipeline is six weeks long, Rinehart says.

Observer publisher Ann Caulkins says she had been in discussions with Dow Jones for about five years to print the Observer on the offset press in University City. Finally, a deal was struck for the Observer to buy the printing plant, built in 1982 at 9140 Research Drive.

Under the purchase agreement, the Observer will print 65,000 copies of the daily Wall Street Journal and 15,000 weekly copies of Dow Jones’ Barron’s magazine for at least 10 years. It will now also produce 130,000 daily and 182,000 Sunday Observers.

“This was just what we needed,” Caulkins says. “My eye was on this ball all along.”

Not only are the University City presses, which have been updated through the years, more efficient and cheaper to operate, they can print color on more pages. Beginning Monday, the daily comics will be in color as well as Kevin Siers’ cartoon on the editorial page. It also means advertisers will have a wider range of color choices, Caulkins says.

They are faster, too, capable of printing 70,000 copies per hour vs. 60,000 on the old presses, meaning some deadlines will be about 30 minutes later.

New presses, new jobs

Some Observer pressmen will move to the new plant and others will retire or take buyouts. Fleming is taking the retirement buyout, which includes half a year’s pay, and he’s happy with it.

“I’m 65 years old. My tired old bones aren’t going out there,” he says of the new plant. His retirement dinner was held Friday in the pressroom.

Fleming says the life of a pressman isn’t for everyone. You work nights and holidays and wait years to accumulate enough seniority to get weekends off. No matter what the weather, you are expected at work.

He remembers a small fire in the pressroom in 1969 that delayed printing for hours, but the Observer eventually got out. Then there was the night of Nov. 15, 2006.

Trucks were hauling away state editions and pressmen were starting to print the final edition when the power died at 1:15 a.m. Instantly, the presses froze and ink heaved up from the units, splashing the workers. “We had a flood in there,” Fleming says.

Duke Energy sent a crew to replace a power line into the building, but dawn arrived before the electricity returned. That day’s final edition was printed at the Wall Street Journal plant and distributed in the afternoon.

In Observer lore, the outage was caused by a rodent – sometimes a squirrel, sometimes a rat, depending on who is telling it – that had gnawed through the electrical cable.

“That sounds like a good folk tale to me,” says publisher Caulkins. “I never got to the bottom of what caused it.”

Anyway, that’s the last time the great presses went silent on South Tryon Street, until now. Obsolescence is their cause of death, and obscurity will be their afterlife. They are to be borne away and sold as scrap.

Washburn: 704-358-5007
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