Editor’s note: While printing the Sun Journal will move to Portland in June to streamline operations, the Sun Journal newspaper is still very much alive and continues doing business at 104 Park St. in Lewiston.
It had been a lousy day from the start.
News sources suddenly gone cold. Editors nagging me from all directions. A police chief screaming at me right out there on Park Street, and a whole bunch of related foulness that made that work shift just rotten to the core.
By the time 11 p.m. rolled around, I was more than ready to go home and sulk for the rest of the night. To avoid the risk of bumping into any more editors on the way out (they’re like black flies in late spring, you know) I snuck out the back of the building, through the pressroom.
That’s where the magic happened.
The press, as it happens, was just rumbling to life. Crewmen in grease-soaked shirts were all over the place, pushing buttons, turning dials, shouting commands to one another, climbing ladders with wrenches in their hands.
And as the gears began to turn and the rollers started spinning, the walls on all sides of that mighty press began to tremble, in fear, possibly, or just in awe. Long sheets of newsprint whizzed across the rollers, moving from one end of the long building to the other at breathtaking speed.
I found that if I stood in one particular spot and let my head loll back on my neck, I could almost make out the headlines as they zipped by. Was that my story about the big fire down on Lincoln Street zipping by? Or just some news out of city hall?
I couldn’t tell for sure, and it didn’t matter, anyway. Just standing next to the press, feeling the power of its labor rumbling beneath my feet, was satisfaction enough to soothe my jangled nerves. Watching all of the news of the day weaving through this crazy, elaborate machine, which to me looked like something that might have been designed by Dr. Seuss himself, was enough to revive me.
I won’t lie to you. From my very first day on the job, when some now-forgotten editor gave me a perfunctory tour of the pressroom, I have been in love with the gargantuan machine that makes sure all my words get out into the world.
That machine, to me, is heroic. And beautiful, in its fearsome way. The press just does its job, over and over without complaint or demands for recognition. The beast just rumbles away night after night, doing the vital work of spreading information far and wide; the most important job of them all.
When I used to bring people to the paper for tours, I’d hurry them through the newsroom en route to the main attraction.
“Here are all the reporters and editors,” I’d tell them, “having polite conversations about words and how to best assemble them to tell stories. Yada yada, let’s go.”
Then I’d hustle them out to the pressroom and just stand back as they tried to take in a view of that monster in one big gulp.
“I can’t tell you how it works, exactly,” I’d say. “But just . . . look at it!”
They’d look, and I’d look at it, too, not for the first time, or the 10th or the 100th. One doesn’t just glance at that big ol’ thing. One has to gape. To this day, I find myself marveling over the hand-cranked wheels, the big red buttons, the long lengths of chain and the crazy assortment of doohickeys, gizmos and whatchacallits whose functions are completely unknown to me.
So many parts and pieces that could fail at any time, and yet each night, the paper gets printed, and whatever miracles the press crew had to perform to make it happen, I’ve never heard them bragging about it. Like the press itself, the press workers just go about the business of bringing news into the world with little to no drama or fanfare.
“The ink-stained pride in that room is inspiring,” said editor Anthony Cristan, a veteran newsman who’s been around long enough to appreciate that kind of thing. “They care deeply about what they do.”
So, yeah. There are times when I’ll creep out to the pressroom, which is kind of a misnomer, I’ve always thought it’s more of a press auditorium, just to gaze upon the big machine that does such important work. How many stories has the press rolled out into the world over its years, I wonder? A million? Many millions?
I sometimes get to wondering if the press has somehow absorbed raw bits of emotion from so many stories of sadness and horror, glee and glory that have glided through its parts over the decades. When the crews go home and the lights go off, does the big machine sometimes weep softly in the dark?
It’s a fanciful thought and nothing more. The press is perhaps the most honest and impartial piece in the entire news process. While reporters and editors are trained to check their human biases, the press has no such worries. It cranks out the news night after night without opinion, completely immune to feelings of rage, joy, horror or dismay over what is written on the pages to which it gives birth. It is, in its way, the very symbol of how news is supposed to work.
And speaking of work, pretty much everything I’ve produced over the past 27 years of my life was produced with the help of that hulking machine that sets the walls to trembling. I like to think that I’ve drawn power from it on nights when the news was particularly hot and the press seemed to rumble with extra gusto in anticipation of it.
Only, these days, the production of news is done mostly with dainty servers and with bits and bytes flying invisibly through space.
It’s progress, I suppose, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. It’s nifty seeing a story fly right from my fingertips and onto the newspaper webpage, sure, but the magic of those bits and bytes fail to enthrall and enchant me the way the press does as it chugs along. And I mean, it’s not even close.
I can’t be too critical of the move. Business is business, and yet I await with true dread the day that mighty press has its last run and then that corner of Park Street goes quiet forever. It’s unimaginable to me. The press has been a part of all of our lives a long, long time.
For some, a reeeeeally long time.
The first time my buddy Randy Baril got acquainted with the press, he was 10 years old and delivering newspapers on his bicycle. He spent 18 years as a pressman, getting his hands greasy each night in service of the queen. Now he works somewhere between the newsroom and the pressroom — the big machine never long out of his sight — as he helps create plates that are strapped to the press each night to accomplish its mission.
Forty-plus-years since Baril pedaled his bike to the paper in search of work, he still works shoulder to steel shoulder with the press towering over him like a dependable and rather large colleague. Seeing that contraption getting hauled away isn’t going to easy, and Baril doesn’t mind admitting it.
“It’s like saying goodbye to an old friend,” he said.
I know what he means, all right. And I’ll tell you this: I’ve never wept on the job, as far as I can recall, but seeing that big, bad machine taken apart, parceled off and silenced forever?
Yeah. That oughta do it.