What happens when there’s no press?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 26, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

We don’t have a press at the Suffolk News-Herald.

A former owner of this paper and the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald down in Ahoskie, N.C. didn’t see the need for operating two presses so close together.

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Long-time employees here curse that day because of the inconvenience. And the inconveniences are many.

First off, we have to have an absurdly early deadline for a morning newspaper. We have to transmit our pages electronically to our printer nightly by 10:30 p.m. That’s so our paper can be printed, and have any inserts be put in and then transported back here by 2 a.m. to facilitate timely delivery. Most dailies have a presstime around midnight or later.

Secondly, our news department doesn’t have the luxury of being able to go back to the pressroom and grab the first copy off the press and scan it quickly for glaring errors. There’s just nothing like being able to see something in print to catch errors. Of course, we proof the pages on the computer screen and run spell checks and all the other wonderful conveniences technology has wrought, but they are not fail-proof. For some reason, errors just jump off the printed page. Once we hit the print button, it’s out of our hands.

Also, we are unable to get most results from professional sporting events in the paper the next day. It’s a real stretch for us to even get local results in. It never ceases to amaze me how sports editor Jason Norman is able to attend basketball games, get back to the office at 9 or 9:30, write it up, work the phones for info on games he could not physically attend, compose his page and get the page to press on time.

The nightly lottery drawing is at 11 so that’s out.

Despite all these negatives, rarely a day passes that I don’t wake up in the morning, look to the sky, and thank the creator that we don’t have a press.

There are few pieces of machinery in the world that are as maddening as a press. They have a gazillion costly parts that constantly have to be replaced or machined or something. When you have a press you have to deal with buying ink and scheduling paper deliveries around your limited warehouse space.

But worst of all, you have to deal with pressmen. Pressmen are a strange lot, unlike any other worker. First of all, they are hard to come by, particularly for a small newspaper trying to eek out an existence in the shadow of metro behemoths, which are typically short on pressmen themselves and are able to pay them much more than a little community paper.

And if you are lucky enough to find one who knows what he’s doing, he’s smart enough to know he has you over a barrel and can hold your paper hostage unless you do whatever he wants. He knows that if he walks, you won’t get your paper out.

I ran the Hopewell News for several years. It’s a small daily not unlike the News-Herald. The advertising market there was dying so we did a lot of commercial printing for other small papers. We lived and died by it. My press crew knew full well that I couldn’t live without them and they acted accordingly.

In addition, as a newsman, they knew I had no idea how the press operated and used to have a good time messing with my head at every opportunity.

I would go back into the pressroom and find them talking to their girlfriends on the phone or generally lounging around, always seemingly eating something and inquire why we weren’t printing something. I may not know my way around a press but I know people milking the clock when I see it.

The head pressmen would typically say something like &uot;Well, we’ve got a problem. The tucker blades aren’t synchronizing with the oscillators,&uot; or some such nonsense, and having the mechanical inclination God gave a Girl Scout, I’d just sit there and try to feign comprehension of the situation. When I would leave they would roll around on the floor laughing.

So like I said, on most days I praise the former owners of the paper for their decision. However, Friday was not one of them.

Because of the weather, our pressmen dictated that we move our deadline up seven and a half hours, so instead of our normal 10:30 deadline, we had to get the paper to them at 3 p.m.

This seems to happen about once or twice a month, because it’s either snowing, or raining, or foggy or there’s something good coming on TV that night they want to get home to watch, and I don’t mind because I don’t like staying here any later than I have to. But yesterday, as tragedy unfolded in Suffolk as young Delvin Lesselle Jones was hooked to life support clinging to life after falling through the ice of a pond, I ached to have some control over our destiny.

Reporter Allison Williams and photographer Harvey White spent considerable time watching the events unfold. When they returned to the office, Williams said she approached a group of people at the site. Among them was a girl, about 12, and another, 6. They were Delvin’s sisters. All the 12-year-old could do was cry. The younger one, Williams said, looked at her and asked, &uot;Is he dead yet?&uot;

I couldn’t get her account out of my head. I thought about my own son, 13, and his sister, 9, and how devastated she would be if something like that had happened. And I thought how unimportant things like having a press or getting a scoop are when compared to what Delvin Jones’ family is going experiencing.

Meanwhile, we held out in the newsroom as long as we could, hoping against hope for a miracle, that after spending more than an hour in the frigid waters that the youngster would somehow survive. We debated the presentation of the story, and I finally made the call to go with the headline stating he was on life support, half out of the lack of alternatives and half out of hope that stating it in print would somehow make it so.

I was en route home, our newspaper long since printed, when Williams called on my cell phone to tell me that Delvin had died. There was nothing we could do to change the paper, just as there was nothing Delvin’s friends or family could do to turn back the clock and keep him from walking on the ice.

Andy Prutsok is editor and publisher of the News-Herald.