They stopped the presses. Printing of The News Tribune and The Olympian outsourced

We’re still a paragraph factory, just not a print production site anymore.

The News Tribune, along with The Olympian, now will be printed by The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Washington. Feb. 2 saw the last Sunday TNT edition roll off a Tacoma press.

Olympia and Tacoma readers will see their first editions printed in Vancouver with the Feb. 4 papers.

“It’s the first time we’ve printed outside The News Tribune building,” Editor Dale Phelps said last month. “We write about businesses a lot who have to adapt to the future, and that’s what we’re doing.”

A number of News Tribune employees, including retired press workers and others, gathered Saturday night to watch the final run in Tacoma.

Duke Roorda, 77, was among them.

Wearing red suspenders and a gray beard, Roorda — who retired more than a decade ago — said it was important for him to be there.

“You know, it kind of breaks my heart that they’re going to dismantle this thing,” Roorda said of the giant presses, which, after printing papers daily for more than 40 years, were deemed too old and costly to maintain. “That ink stays in your blood forever.”

The move to outside presses affected 67 positions related to printing and ad inserting at The News Tribune. Those jobs were eliminated as a result of the move.

“Ten years ago, if you’d asked me if this day was coming, I don’t think I would have imagined it,” Phelps said. “But like a lot of businesses … there’s disruption, there’s change, and we have to adapt to it just like any other business.”

The trend for outsourcing printing became noticeable in the newspaper business about 10 years ago, as the Great Recession dug into newspaper profits and the digital transformation began to take effect.

More and more presses nationwide were either reaching the end of their life spans or becoming too expensive to maintain. One observer described it at the time to the Poynter Institute as a “torrent” of papers giving up their presses through consolidation and outsourcing.

For more than 40 years, Tacoma’s presses have been printing papers seven days a week since the News Tribune moved from downtown to its current location near 19th Street and Sprague Avenue.

Over the last decade, Tacoma became a print hub for itself, The Olympian and The Bellingham Herald, all McClatchy-owned properties. Olympia started printing in Tacoma in 2009, Bellingham in 2018.

Bellingham is now printed in Everett.

“The cost of maintaining and updating presses that old is prohibitive, as is replacing them,” David Zeeck, former publisher of The News Tribune, The Olympian and The Bellingham Herald, said in November when the announcement was made that printing operations would be outsourced.

Phelps noted that by cutting print costs through outsourcing, The News Tribune “can reallocate for our digital transformation and newsroom resources.”

There also are practical effects.

News deadlines for print are moving earlier to accommodate the drive for the trucks making their way from Vancouver to Tacoma on Interstate 5.

The earlier deadlines also mean the printed paper can no longer carry the day’s lottery results.

Also, in adjusting to work with a different press setup, there will be some page-position changes in Tacoma’s Sunday edition starting with the Feb. 11 edition:

Local news will move into the A section, similar to the other days of the week.

The Opinion page moves into the A section.

The Sports section will be the B section.

Obituaries will be in the B section behind the sports news.

The weather will be in the B section behind sports.

SoundLife will move inside the B section.

The puzzles page will move out of Classified into the B section.

The C section will be a combination of business coverage and classifieds.

History of the press

Housing a new press that weighed about a million pounds and stood three stories tall proved a predicament for The News Tribune in the middle of the 20th century.

The newspaper had outgrown the St. Helens printing facility it had occupied since 1918.

That old printing operation at 711 St. Helens had been pushed to its capacity. It withstood a massive earthquake in April 1949 and had gone dormant only once, as far as employees recalled. That was during the newspaper strike in 1952.

Publisher Elbert H. Baker II began purchasing land on State Street in 1950 to grow the company in the center of the city and the newspaper’s distribution area. That acreage laid the foundation for the company’s purchase of a new 12-unit Goss Metro offset press that arrived two decades later.

Before that press found its new home in Tacoma in 1973, Baker and production manager John A. Blatnik paid a visit to St. Louis to observe the Post-Dispatch newspaper’s Goss offset press (that press has since been retired, but the Post-Dispatch still has four Goss presses running).

On the visit, Baker and Blatnik marveled at how the press operators had adapted to equipment that, at the time, revolutionized the speed and quality of publishing.

Upgrading the press proved a major undertaking.

The News Tribune would be one of the largest afternoon newspapers in the country to switch to offset printing. That meant the newspaper would leave behind the “hot metal” printing plates made from molten metal to a new computerized system using printing plates made from film.

Housing a press of that size would take space. The 40-acre Tacoma site was selected “because level, firm ground was needed to support the massive 12-unit, Goss Metro offset press,” said Baker in news reports at the time.

It took 31 trucks to ship the Goss press and the equipment to set it up from Chicago, where it was manufactured. The freight weighed in at 1,004,500 pounds.

When it arrived in Tacoma, workers spent months settling it into its 111,000 square feet of floor space.

“We had 12 units to start with,” said longtime press operator Durk Frew, who started working for The News Tribune the year after the new press arrived. Frew was recruited by his father, who worked in the newspaper’s press operation from around 1968 to 1978.

“It was built with the intention of expanding it. The units were numbered 4 through 15,” he said. That numbering was so “they could later put units 1, 2 and 3 on one end and 16, 17 and 18 on the other end.”

Expanding the press over the years increased the newspaper’s color and page capacity.

Frew remembers in the early years how press operators worked 20 hours straight some days to get the fickle machinery to cooperate.

“We’d go in at 6 on Saturday night and get off at 2 Sunday afternoon,” he said.

Did the press ever break down?

“Yes, but we got the paper printed every time,” he said.

About 30 miles of newsprint and 600 pounds of ink ran through the press every week to produce all those papers. The press has a capacity to produce 70,000 newspapers per hour.

The final run

Inside lead pressman Dave Branam’s office, there used to be a photo on the wall.

By the time the presses at The News Tribune fired up for the final time Saturday night, it had been taken down, packed up as a keepsake.

The black-and-white picture, with a thick coating of pressroom dust lining its wooden frame, depicted a crew of roughly 30 pressmen. A sticky note commemorated its suspected age, reading simply “1977?”

Some of the men in the photo wore horn-rimmed glasses. Others sported overgrown sideburns. A few had cigarettes dangling from their fingers.

If the sticky note was correct, the photo was taken four years after the paper’s printing operation moved to South State Street in Tacoma, where the aging, lumbering machinery ran for the last four decades.

Tim Jowett, who started with The News Tribune in 1966, seven years before the printing operation moved from downtown to its current location, was the only employee in the photo still working the presses Saturday.

Jowett, 73, retired — or at least tried to — back in 2009, but the assistant foreman couldn’t stay away. Branam was sending the photo home with him.

“I retired, but then then I got missing it,” Jowett said. “It’s the camaraderie and just being here. This is my second home.”

It was a common sentiment Saturday night, an evening tinged with somber nostalgia that many described as an end of an era.

At 5 p.m., current and former pressmen gathered for one last shift, sharing several large pizzas and plenty of memories, before a crew of 14 got to work on the final issues of The News Tribune and The Olympian to be printed in Tacoma.

An allegiance to the trade and the machinery that makes it possible was a common theme.

While Jowett said he understood the evolving dynamics of news and the inevitably of change, he couldn’t hide the disappointment he feels with the decision to move printing out of Tacoma.

“We’ve kept this equipment going for a long time, and it kind of hurt us to have McClatchy say, ‘OK, your equipment’s too old, we’re moving,’” Jowett said. “We’ve kept it up pretty good, and it’s still pretty good.”

Jim Harrison, 74, was another old-timer who felt compelled to make one last pilgrimage to see the presses before they shut down for good. Harrison retired 11 years ago, after 40 years in the business.

“I was here on opening day, let’s put it that way,” Harrison said, recalling when The News Tribune began printing on South State Street in 1973.

Harrison was asked what he enjoyed about the job.

“It paid good. I guess the hours were decent. The paper business used to be a real thriving thing,” he said. “I didn’t think it would ever end. Everyone has to have the paper.”

At 10:36 p.m. Saturday — after one last run of The News Tribune — Branam shut down the presses in the City of Destiny for good.

“That’s it,” the lead pressman said with wistful finality.

Staff writer Mary Anderson contributed to this report.