New York

Stopping The Presses

The last press-check guy for the Village Voice reflects on a life in print

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If you notice a mistake while overseeing the printing of a newspaper, you never yell, “Stop the presses!” The gargantuan machines sound like someone jackhammering on anvils — no one can hear you scream.

I know, because from 1999 until 2015 I oversaw 900 or so weekly issues of the Village Voice as they rolled off the printing presses. (Since 1955 there have been roughly 3,200 editions of the tabloid-size newspaper printed — an accurate count will be determined when the Voice begins an extensive archiving project later this year.) A newspaper press is like something out of Piranesi’s fantastical eighteenth-century etchings of vast gloomy interiors with massive, angled bulwarks, snaking stairways, canted catwalks, and iron gratings. When you step through sound-dampening doors onto a printing press’s steel floor, you are engulfed not only by the clattering din but also by warm air suffused with an intoxicating aroma of ink and solvents. Four-foot-wide streams of newsprint race up through floor slits and zip into labyrinths of printing cylinders housed inside soaring iron towers; from there the speeding sheets make a sharp horizontal turn tight under a forty-foot-high ceiling before finally funneling downward into a whirling, banging cutting drum. A flow of folded newspapers is then disgorged onto a rapidly turning conveyor belt that resembles a fast-moving river of striated color. On a typical press the Voice would pour out at 40,000 copies an hour — roughly eleven copies every second.

I got the job because the Voice’s previous press-check guy gave notice after it was announced that we were moving from the Army Times printing plant, in Springfield, Virginia, to the Baltimore Sun. (Weekly newspapers don’t own presses — the multimillion-dollar capital investment is prohibitive.) My boss in the Voice layout department, where I had been pasting up ads and proofing final pages for a decade, called me over and said, “You’re a painter — you know what cyan, magenta, yellow, and black are, right?” I said sure, the first three are primary colors, though I knew them better as blue, red, and yellow. “Fine,” she said. “You’ll do our press checks.” The next day my predecessor taught me to use a loupe to check color registration — the exacting alignment of the minuscule CMYK printing dots that have made up printed images since the late 1800s — and a densitometer to measure how evenly the black ink was laid down on the newsprint. (According to printer’s lore, the designation “K” for black came about because that’s the plate with the most information — headlines, text, the defining contours of images — and so was referred to as the “key” plate to which the other three plates are aligned. Other historians will tell you “K” was used to differentiate black from blue, since most pressmen, like civilians, call cyan “blue” and magenta “red.”)

It was explained to me that the economics of printing a newspaper (as opposed to a glossy magazine or a coffee-table book) were such that printers were incentivized to push out copies that might not have perfect “reggie” or color density in order to meet the (then) large circulation demands of their own daily editions. Since the Voice was a paying customer, though, I was encouraged to demand that they “waste” more startup copies as adjustments were made, until the pages looked good enough to “sell,” meaning that all text and images were clear and crisp. “Just ride them till it looks sharp,” my tutor emphasized. What he neglected to add was that pressmen could be a surly bunch, craftsmen who didn’t want some upstart from New York City telling them how to do their jobs. The question of when an edition coming off the press stopped being “waste” and could be “sold” (we were printing close to a quarter-million copies a week when I took the job) could involve hundreds, even thousands, of copies.

‘How big a pain in the ass you plan on being?” the foreman asked when I first sauntered into the Sun’s printing plant. Taken aback, I mumbled something about just wanting to make sure the Voice looked as sharp as possible. This was a union shop, and so I was not allowed to touch the presses — whenever I wanted to check a page for registration or color density, I had to ask a pressman to hand me a copy from the flashing stream on the conveyor belt. Massive and impossibly intricate machines, offset web presses can make adjustments to within a thousandth of an inch. I quickly learned, though, that at high speeds it might take a few hundred copies for a register or color move to become apparent. And if an adjustment had been overcompensated for, we would need to address it quickly. I constantly pestered the pressmen for copies, especially after “pasters,” when — with the paper pulling through at thirty or so miles an hour — the leading edge of a fresh roll, covered with a precise pattern of double-sided tape, would be slammed onto the tail edge of the expiring roll, allowing the press to continue turning uninterrupted. After about two months of my asking for a copy roughly every minute — and twice as often whenever one of the many pasters fired — the foreman told me, “We took a vote. Get your own fucking copies.” It was the crew’s way of saying that while I was indeed a pain in the ass, they respected my devotion to visual quality. I felt like I was being accepted into an American fraternity of press artisans that included, among many politicians, artists, and writers, such luminaries as Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Emory Douglas, the Black Panthers’ Minister of Culture.

In those days, I would pick up the negatives for that week’s issue at our Cooper Square offices around 3 a.m. and head to the Kiev for breakfast. Once, I heard the male half of a pierced and tattooed couple grouse to his woman, “Look at that fucking suit.” Since I was wearing jeans, steel-toe boots, and a blue work shirt sans tie, I assumed he was speaking metaphorically. I wondered if they were Voice readers, or if they had already written us off as too corporate in 1999. I’d catch a 4:30 a.m. Amtrak train, examine the negatives on the way, and then drink coffee with the print crew in Baltimore while we waited for the printing plates to be processed. The presses would be rolling by 8:30 a.m. and would continue for roughly six hours, unless we had a problem. Once, when we were about 15,000 copies in, I noticed that an actress’s face looked jaundiced. I checked the proof and realized that the magenta and yellow plates had been inadvertently switched on the press. This is when I discovered that yelling “Stop the presses!” did no good amid the cacophony, and that one need only catch a pressman’s (or, very occasionally, a presswoman’s) eye and slowly flash the thumbs-down signal. The first fifteen grand were just too many copies to trash, but we never heard a complaint after the issue hit the street, so I figured the star’s publicists had picked up one of the 200,000-plus copies in which her pallor looked healthy.

After a couple of years at the Sun, the Voice was printed in Philadelphia, then Long Island, then upstate; finally, the week after Superstorm Sandy trashed the building of our printer in Jersey, we moved to the Staten Island Advance, where a jaunty and very reliable crew printed the paper you are now holding (unless you’re scrolling through this text on your phone). I had the rare privilege over those many years to see my own articles come rolling off the presses, including my first cover story, which featured Uncle Sam flashing the finger — not at the reader, as the comic-book artist Alex Ross explained in an interview, but at President George W. Bush’s administration.

As a writer, it was a revelation to discover that “stereotype” and “cliché” were derived from printing terms, both from 1800s French — the first for a more durable metal printing plate struck from a papier-mâché mold, the second from the clicking sound made when molten metal was set into type. Since many printers were also writers back in the day, the terms eventually came to mean hackneyed, unimaginative, and too often repeated phrases. After it was announced that the Voice would become an online-only publication, I heard another cliché from a former colleague: “Well — now the Voice is finally dead.” It’s that “finally” that is telling. Over my thirty years at the paper, it has occurred to me that the only things declared dead more times than the Voice are Saturday Night Live, the East Village, and, over the past couple of centuries, painting. I once wrote an essay, “Painting Spits on Your Grave,” about how the ever-robust medium was supposedly killed by photography in the 1800s and then by various “-isms,” critical polemics, and market forces in the days since.

Depending on who you talk to, the Voice has died at least two or three times out of the seven that it has changed ownership. Many were certain that Rupert Murdoch would, if nothing else, kill its editorial independence in 1977; others wrote it off when a faceless investment group bought it in 2000. In the early ’70s a new underground paper, the New York Ace, described itself as “an amalgam of writers bent on one goal — to wipe out the Village Voice.” The Ace lasted roughly a year. The New York Press (1988–2011) had similar ambitions. According to other speculators, the Voice has been a corpse since it switched to free distribution, in 1996.

So for all those folks out there proclaiming the death of the Voice yet again, here’s hoping it will still be avidly read online in New York City and around the world long after this particular death has gone the way of all flesh. And newsprint.

The Voice’s longtime chief art critic and production manager, R.C. Baker is a New York Foundation for the Arts Painting Fellow; in 2016 he was awarded a Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.

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