In the 7½ years I’ve been at the Times-News, there are few constants. One of those constants is change. But a few things have stayed the same, like the hum of the press and Jerry Johns managing it. Chief Photographer Drew Nash has been with the paper for about 10 years. He and I sat down with Johns and found out we didn’t know as much as we thought about how the press works. Johns told us of some of the highs and lows of the past 34 years at the paper.
Over the years, through all the changes, people are always blown away by the number of people and the amount of collaboration it takes to print the paper every day, he said.
“They think all we do is push that button and boom, it appears.”
But that notion couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Today in the world of technology, anything that’s been around for more than five years is considered old. While parts and pieces of new technology have been added to and or taken away from the press over the past 50 years, the press itself has changed very little. We now use soy-based ink instead of petroleum-based, and there’s less paper waste today, making the production more eco-friendly than in the past.
But getting the paper to the press has changed dramatically, Johns said. When his career began, composers literally cut and pasted copy with knives and glue to put the stories and headlines in the right place for each page. A negative was made for each page and then it was printed onto a plate.
“Technology changes almost daily,” Johns said. “It’s fun to try to keep up.”
Now the page is built on computer screens, then printed directly onto the aluminum plates. It’s a highly automated system.
But printing the paper itself?
“It’s all done by hand,” Johns said.
Working on the press, knowing how to calibrate colors, knowing all the parts and how they work together is becoming a lost art, he said. Newspapers like the Times-News still need people who know how to operate the press. Often, skilled press employees move from states away to take a job. New employees go through weeks of training.
It can be a dangerous job, with hundreds of moving parts.
Humans and machines work cooperatively, which requires ultimate precision and attention to detail.
“It can take your life if you’re not careful,” Johns said.
Just once in Johns’ career has the paper been printed off-site. There was a power outage that lasted into the night, forcing the paper to be printed in Idaho Falls and trucked back to the Magic Valley.
And the notorious “Stop the presses!” has been uttered just a handful of times— the most memorable time was for a close, hotly contested local election result. Another was for an execution. Everyone thought there would be a stay, but it never came, Johns said.
One of the draws of journalism and a perk of the job is learning constantly every day. With each interview and every story, reporters and editors learn a little bit more about our world. It’s the same for those who print and produce the paper, Johns said.
After our interview, I’m even more proud to work at the Times-News. Digital content is inevitable. I love the ease of pulling up breaking news stories on my phone or laptop. But there’s something that will always be comforting about seeing words on a page of newsprint and feeling a paper in hand.
—Alison Gene Smith, Editor