Tom Eblen

Presses roll final time as newspaper printing moves to Louisville

Stories of the Herald-Leader press

Brothers Scotty and Gary Mitchell, who have helped print for the Lexington Herald-Leader for over 40 years, describe the history of the press in the Midland Avenue building and how generations of their family were involved with maintaining it.
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Brothers Scotty and Gary Mitchell, who have helped print for the Lexington Herald-Leader for over 40 years, describe the history of the press in the Midland Avenue building and how generations of their family were involved with maintaining it.

The last issue of the Lexington Herald-Leader to be printed in Lexington rolled off the presses early Sunday morning.

When the two seven-unit Goss Metro presses slowed to a stop for the last time, it marked the end of 229 years of newspaper printing in Lexington. The era began on Aug. 11, 1787, when John Bradford inked his inaugural issue of The Kentucke Gazette, the first newspaper published west of Pittsburgh.

The Herald-Leader isn’t going away. It will continue to be reported, written and edited in Lexington and delivered each morning throughout most of Kentucky.

But beginning Monday, the Herald-Leader will be printed and packaged by Gannett Publishing Services in Louisville. The Courier-Journal affiliate’s Koenig & Bauer Colora presses, installed in 2004, are faster, more efficient and able to print color on every page.

The change means the loss of 25 full-time and four part-time jobs in Lexington, although a few of those workers plan to move to Louisville. The Herald-Leader’s 36-year-old presses — parts of which are much older — will be sold for parts and scrap.

Packaging equipment at a building on Fortune Drive will be sold. The news and advertising staffs will move to office space somewhere downtown when the Herald-Leader building is sold. That facility at 100 Midland Ave. has a lot more space than today’s digitally focused media company needs.

“This is terribly sad for me, but it was inevitable,” said John Royse, who retired as pressroom manager in 2008 after a 46-year career that saw dramatic changes in printing technology.

Royse worked as a pressman in the Herald-Leader’s circa 1916 building at Short and Market streets when Linotype operators keyed news stories into metal type that was assembled into page blocks that weighed 42 pounds each.

A few years before Royse helped move the newspaper to the new building on Midland Avenue in 1980, metal “hot” type had been replaced by “cold” offset printing.

By the time Royse retired, pages were created on computers and electronically “burned” to 3-ounce aluminum plates. They transferred images to a rubber blanket and then to paper with a sophisticated mixture of ink and water.

“It was always exciting to see the presses run,” Royse said. “It’s an amazing machine, and I liked having a crew that really took pride in their work.”

From ink to pixels

As the internet has grown, newspapers and magazines have been hit hard by a loss of advertising revenue. The advertising industry has never been more competitive.

News readership keeps rising, but it has moved from newsprint to computers and cellphones. Publishers are reluctant to invest millions of dollars in replacing old presses, so printing plants across North America are consolidating.

The Lexington Herald-Leader is no longer just a newspaper; it is a digitally focused news and advertising company with a print option. The fastest-growing audience now reads the “newspaper” on mobile phones.

The Herald-Leader’s print circulation has fallen from a peak of about 130,000 daily and 180,000 Sunday in the late 1980s to 47,505 daily and 76,887 Sunday currently. But an additional 120,000 people a day now read the Herald-Leader’s website, the mobile app and the electronic edition of the print newspaper.

Newspaper’s pulsing heart

Before the internet, the pressroom was the pulsing heart of a newspaper. It was where the work of journalists and advertising people came together and was made real. Words and images became hunks of newsprint to be stacked, bundled, trucked, distributed and delivered into the hands of readers.

Watch any old movie: the most exciting thing an editor could do when big news happened was yell, “Stop the presses!” During my decade as managing editor, I got to do that a few times, although I never yelled.

On election night 2000, then-editor Pam Luecke and I stopped the presses three times because nobody could figure out whether Al Gore or George W. Bush was the new president. The third time I called down to the pressroom, our deadlines had been blown so badly that the frazzled press foreman just said, “Whatever.”

Pressroom and packaging center employees often spent years, if not decades, working together. They were like a family and, in some cases, they actually were.

Gary Mitchell, 62, who oversees the packaging center, started working there in 1969. His brother, Scotty, 59, a former pressman who now manages press operations, joined him in 1974.

Both had been hanging around the Herald-Leader since they were boys. Their father, Scott Mitchell Jr., managed the packaging center, then called the mail room, for many of his 48 years at the newspaper.

The Mitchell brothers’ mother worked in the mail room during World War II, and other relatives helped out occasionally. The brothers estimate their family has spent a combined 150 years getting the Herald-Leader printed and ready for readers.

“I spent five years in the other building on Market,” Scotty Mitchell said. “It was like working in a coal mine. At the end of the shift you would blow your nose and it was black. There was a black fog there all the time when you ran the press.”

Moving to what was then a state-of-the-art facility on Midland Avenue was exciting. The environment was cleaner, and the three-story-high Goss Metros could easily churn out 55,000 papers an hour.

“The guys here were really close-knit,” Scotty Mitchell said. “They didn’t want you wandering the building with ink on you, and so you were kind of isolated. It forced you into a close-knit group. Those people became your friends. You got through with work and you’d hang out together, because it was 4 o’clock in the morning and there wasn’t anybody else up.”

Pressroom and packaging center employees always felt a strong sense of mission, the Mitchell brothers said. They were passionate about producing a quality newspaper on time.

“It was always exciting to be the first people in town to read the paper,” Gary Mitchell said.

Bullet through the window

There was even a little danger. After the Herald-Leader began publishing stories about University of Kentucky basketball NCAA violations that would later win the Pulitzer Prize, somebody fired a shot through the pressroom windows. Nobody was hurt, but the next day huge rolls of paper were moved in front of the windows to shield the pressmen.

The presses received several upgrades over the years to improve quality and efficiency. When new equipment was needed in 2000 because more retailers were changing from “run of press” advertising to pre-printed inserts, the packaging center was moved to a new facility on Fortune Drive.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes, a lot of automation,” said Roger Penrod, who has worked in the packaging center for 33 years. “When I started, the work was almost unlimited, the hours were unlimited, especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

There was a lot of camaraderie, too. “Some of the people I work with are the best,” Penrod said.

Son Nguyen agreed. He immigrated to the United States from Vietnam after the war ended and started working in the packaging center soon after moving to Lexington in 1979. “I love it here,” he said. “That’s why I’ve been here so long.”

As with any business, change is inevitable. The internet can distribute news faster and farther than printed papers ever could. But pardon me for a moment as I feel nostalgic. When I said “Stop the presses!” I never meant it like this.