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Taming the ‘beast’ in our basement

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Posted: Friday, November 12, 2004 10:00 pm

You wouldn't know it by passing by the Lodi News-Sentinel, but there is a monster in the basement.

It's a thunderous, powerful beast that gulps ink and spews out paper.

Our monster is a Goss Suburban offset, also known as a printing press.

This column is about our marvelous mechanical monster, but it is also about the remarkable crew of four men and one woman who tame this beast six nights a week.

Members of the press crew toil at night in relative anonymity. But if a newspaper is a daily miracle, these are the true miracle workers: Ken Hubeny, Kathy Driver, Mike Mehlhaff, Chuck Barton and foreman Joe Mistretta.

Richard Hanner

A newspaper is driven by many talented people, but none more diversely talented than those who tend the Goss. They are mechanics who can listen to the thunder of the press and pick up a gentle ping that means a bearing is awry. They are artists whose keen eyes make sure the photos are sharp, the type legible. They are physically strong and nimble, for their job requires pushing around massive rolls of paper and using heavy metal tools to tweak and tame the press.

Most of all, they are a team.

As a journalist, I've been confined to a newsroom for all of my career. However, I was recently invited by Joe to spend some time with his crew, and I walked away overwhelmed, aching and impressed.

Our Goss press is a brute but also a beauty, reliable and precise. The press is the thumping, screaming heart of any newspaper. It is also the biggest investment most publishers ever make.

Chairman Fred Weybret, who was publisher when the Goss was purchased and installed, remembers the acquisition clearly. The monster cost $563,000 in 1979. It was made on the East Coast and shipped across the country by rail "piggyback" style so it could be easily transferred to trucks. Its installation required the creation of a large hatch over the basement-level press room so a crane could first lift out the old press.

Joe Mistretta

Then the new machine could be gently placed, piece by piece, down into the pressroom.

The arrival and installation of the press was an event of much excitement. It would provide greatly improved color and quality in the News-Sentinel. Fred still has pictures of the press, awaiting installation, in his family's photo albums. (The press arrived here about the same time Marty Weybret, Fred's son, joined the paper. Marty and Fred have always struck with me with their knowledge of this sprawling machine; I know now that their understanding rises in part from being engaged in its assemblage and start-up here.)

So it has been here for 25 years, rumbling to life nearly each night, ignited by electricity, overseen by its crew of skillful tenders.

It is a choreography carried out under deadline pressure.

Chuck Barton

Kathy Driver

Ken Hubeny

Mike Mehlhaff

Printing a newspaper is a little like a paint job: The key is in the preparation.

Long before a button is pushed and the press erupts into motion, Joe and his colleagues must calculate how much paper to put on which sections of the press, how much and what kind of ink to place in the fountains, and which parts of the press may need cleaning or maintenance before the press run begins.

They must also build the plates, images of the newspaper pages that are mounted onto the press.

They must do this in a careful and timely sequence, because the number of pages and sections varies from night to night. So, too, does the combination of black and white versus color pages. You might think the people who work the presses are ink-stained. Not so. They take pains to remain clean, washing their hands regularly, to avoid smudging the paper.

They do the prep work without hesitation, and when the button is pushed and the mighty Goss is awakened, the pressroom sparks with human and mechanical energy.

The papers that first emerge do not resemble those dropped on Lodi's doorsteps. They are smeared and hopelessly out of register. Press crew members, most wearing ear plugs, grab the papers as they gush out of the Goss, study them, then adjust the knobs on the press. This is part art, part science.

After a few minutes, the words and images in the rushing papery stream have clarified.

Each night, it is a scramble, a push.

Still, the people of the press thrive on the work.

"Not many people run presses," said Mike. "It's a different kind of job, an interesting job. I like the action."

Kathy, with a background in art, finds the work creative.

"This is never boring. The shift goes by very fast," she said.

For Chuck, being part of a crew that is capable and self-sufficient is a major satisfaction.

"If something needs fixing, we fix it. We very seldom have to call anyone in," he said.

Joe, the foreman, calmly supervises the production and is an active part of it. He has been running presses since 1971. His dad was a pressman; so was his grandfather. He likes the mix of physical and mental process.

Every shift, he said, is different. Every shift is a challenge, one Joe clearly relishes.

Yet at the end of the shift, the result is predictable: A community newspaper produced by four men and a woman who take great pride in taming the monster.

Richard Hanner is the Lodi News-Sentinel's editor. He can be reached at (209) 369-7035; at 125 N. Church St., or via e-mail.

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