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Jacobs: Newspapers emerge from manufacturing process

It's easy to forget that the newspaper is essentially a manufactured item -- until something in the manufacturing process breaks down. Fortunately, this is rare enough that it has never interfered with (eventually) publishing.

There are delays at times, though; and very often, enough things go wrong that everyone in the process becomes annoyed with the machinery that is creating the problem.

Perhaps "technology" is a better word than "machinery" here.

For the machinery is reliable enough. As long as it's treated well, cleaned up after each use and maintained regularly, the machinery keeps cranking out newspapers.

It's the electronics that bug us all.

Like other manufactured products, newspapers are increasingly at the mercy of machinery that is infinitely smaller and vastly more complicated than a press. A press, after all, is basically a set of rollers that a motor pulls sheets of paper through.

Make that several sets of rollers, actually, for each page and each color. Getting everything lined up so that the pages are in the right order is no small matter.

And that's only part of the alignment. The plates that go on the press have to match perfectly so that the colors match up. Each full-color picture takes four separate plates, and the least misalignment means murky photographs.

Even this isn't the end of the process. The separate sets of rollers also need to put the pages together in the right order. The pages are cut and folded as they come off the press. Then they're fed into machinery that counts them, puts address labels on them and dumps them onto a loading dock.

That's where the circulation department takes over, and the process shifts from manufacturing to distribution.

The difficulties here are mainly personnel. We contract with drivers and carriers to deliver the paper. Then there's the post office.

Now, add timing to the mix.

And remember, all of this is taking place at night and against tight deadlines. Trucks have to leave early enough to have plenty of time to reach communities up to 120 miles from our printing plant on the west side of Grand Forks. But of course, they can't leave until they have newspapers to carry.

So far, I've only described the tail end of the process. Quite a lot of work has gone into the manufacturing of a newspaper before it ever hits the press. Some of this is gathering the news, writing and editing the stories, designing the pages -- the sorts of things that most people associate with newspaper work.

But these, too, are driven more by technology than has ever been the case before. Reporters are now their own typesetters, and page designers are production personnel as much as they are editors.

The same is true for the other side of the business -- advertising. In fact, despite the separation that newspapers maintain between news and advertising -- generally referred to as "church and state" inside the business -- the processes really are much the same. Advertising sales reps gather information just as reporters do, and advertising designers produce pages just as editors do.

All of them are aiming toward the critical moment in every newspaper day: the press start.

For the Grand Forks Herald, that moment actually occurs twice, the first for the papers that go into the mail or into trucks to be taken to distant communities, and the second for the papers that are delivered locally.

Most nights there is a pause between these points, in order to update information -- often sports scores -- or to correct errors, especially in headlines.

These are called "makeovers," and one of the goals of the process is to keep them at a minimum. That's because every makeover costs money, and perhaps more important, every one of them also costs time.

One of the goals of a deadline-driven process is to be far enough ahead at every step so that we have time to recover if something does go wrong.

If production is up against deadlines, recovery is much more difficult.

Still, the product does have the word "new" in its title, and so we do push the process in order to get the big news in.

Everyone who's worked in a newspaper building knows the thrill of getting the latest tidbit in the paper. Yet it's rare to actually "Stop the presses." I've actually done it only once in my career, on Oct. 23, 1983 -- the night the Marine Corps barracks was bombed in Beirut.

Jacobs is the publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, which is a part of Forum News Service. Email him at