MISSOULA — The rumble of titanic machinery can be heard throughout the pressroom of the Missoulian each night as the press churns out thousands of copies of the newspaper along the conveyor belt.
But on March 28, the Missoulian press will run for the final time and those sounds will be silenced, the newspaper reported.
The local paper, which has been around for more than 150 years, will be printed in Helena following the sale of the Missoulian building at 500 South Higgins.
The closure of the press in Missoula marks the end of an era.
“It’s been a good run,” said Todd Matthews, who has operated the press for 15 years.
Matthews is one of four press operators who are responsible for printing the Missoulian each day, and a number of other publications such as the Kaimin, the Ravalli Republic, the Messenger and Missoula Fresh Market ads.
Each night, the team starts the press, which they refer to as “Red Monster,” mostly because of its size and color. Like a car in the dead of winter, the press takes some time to get warmed up and running smoothly. The operators feed metal plates etched with articles and photos into different parts of the machine and then lead a long web of paper under and over parts of the press called rollers and folders.
When all is ready to go, 700-pound rolls of paper zip through the machine so fast that the pictures on the page blur together. Ink is transferred from the metal plate to a blanket and then the page while other parts of the machine fold and cut the paper.
Press operators zip from one end of the massive press to the other, pulling copies still hot with fresh ink from the conveyor belt to examine the type and color, making sure everything is in place and looks right before tossing the test copies in a giant recycling bin.
Matthews, like many press operators, worked his way up to his current role. He started in the Missoulian’s mailroom, where he worked hard to get noticed by supervisors by doing things like grabbing a broom and sweeping while waiting for the press to start up again. Soon, he was learning how to operate the press through apprenticeship.
There is no formal training for press operators. With fewer presses and opportunities to learn on the job as more news shifts to digital and print subscribers become fewer, operators said they expect to see a decline in the trade.
“The press operator trade is going away,” said Larry Sorenson, a Missoulian press operator of 34 years. “It’s going to be lost because there won’t be anybody to train.”
Sorenson, whose hands are often covered with ink, thinks there will always be small papers with small presses, and other forms of publishing for print materials like books will continue to find success, he said.
But print newspaper operations as we know them will become fewer and fewer. Sorenson said that’s a shame because “there’s nothing like print.”
All four of the Missoulian’s press operators said they plan to move on to other fields after the Missoulian’s last press run at its current location.
Rick Bush, the production manager of print operations in Missoula, will be the new production director in Helena following the transition.
Many changes will come with the move, he said. The Missoulian’s reporters will have slightly earlier deadlines so that the finished papers can be trucked back to Missoula for delivery. Some late stories won’t make it into print, but will be posted live on the newspaper’s website. Some sections will be consolidated to accommodate the different press configuration in Helena.
The change comes with the decline in print readership affecting newspapers across the country, Bush noted. At the height of the Missoulian’s print readership, distribution ranged all the way up to the Hi-Line and all the way down to Idaho. Today, it is delivered down to Hamilton and up to Kalispell.
The Missoulian building on the banks of the Clark Fork opened in 1985, but the staff has dwindled in recent years and doesn’t need as much space. The prime riverfront property has attracted countless offers. The newspaper’s parent company, Lee Enterprises, made the decision to sell the facility and relocate the newsroom to another as-yet-unannounced location in town.
The press operators, some of whom have worked at the Missoulian since the South Higgins building opened, said they have enjoyed their time on the job and will miss the camaraderie.
Robert Guiffre, a press operator of 17 years who started in Livingston, said one of his most memorable nights working the press was when a piece of the machine called the “folder,” which folds the pages together, broke while producing a Sunday Mother’s Day paper. The guys working that night could either fix the press or be responsible for the first day the Missoulian would have ever missed an issue (to this day, it has not).
“It was a huge deal, but we figured out that we could run the main paper to this other folder that we use for something else,” Guiffre said. “It took us 10 hours to get out but we did it and we didn’t know if we could do it.”
Matthews remembers a former coworker accidentally overflowing one of the units with lube oil, which left that employee with a pile to clean up that was 10 feet wide.
Shaun Morin, another press operator, recalled one time that an employee forgot to close an ink fountain and turned the switch on, spewing 10 gallons of yellow ink out of the machine that took hours to clean up.
Morin will also miss his colleagues and said everyone always got along well. He used to cook pancakes for coworkers on griddles at the office.
“I had good times around here,” Morin said. “… It’s the people. I worked with a good crew.”
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