Ink in my veins
Memories of The Sandpoint News-Bulletin and the labors needed to create a newspaper
I am not sure if I have ink in my veins, or I have given my own blood to the ink? But I come from a newspaper family.
My grandfather Laurin Eastman Pietsch and my father Gary Laurin Pietsch owned The News-Bulletin newspaper in Sandpoint, Idaho when I was a kid.
By the time I was in high school it was a weekly with a circulation of around 6,000 that hit the street every Thursday.
I was surprised to learn that my grandfather first began publishing the paper in the 1920s using a manual typewriter to create the type. I found an edition from 1928 among his belongings. I honestly do not know how they used the typewritten words to create multiple copies of the newspaper. A technique lost to the ages.
At that time there were three newspapers in a town of about 3,000 people. My grandfather eventually bought out the other two. The Sandpoint News-Bulletin was the only paper in town for many years.
At some point he also bought an office supply and commercial printing company from the Perks family. The two businesses shared a building on North 2nd Avenue in Sandpoint next to what was then the Post Office, now McDuff’s Brewing Co. The entrance on the left was a storefront called the Eclipse where you could buy paper products, art and office supplies or order custom printing like stationery and business forms. On the other side were the newspaper offices with the newsroom in the front. The two businesses shared the back half of the building with small printing presses on one side and equipment used to put out the paper on the other.
During the early 1930s my grandfather upgraded to a letterpress to print the newspaper. It was huge. The machine sat in the middle of the room on top of a basement well that allowed access to the underside of the carriage. During my visits as a little boy in the 1960s, I remember the press shaking the building when it ran.
The process of putting out a newspaper then was labor intensive. The company employed reporters, photographers, pressman, typists, office workers, paperboys and me as a janitor and general flunky. I would sweep the floors, empty the garbage cans and melt the used lead type back into bars, or “pigs” as they were called, for reuse in the typesetting machines.
Some of the papers were mailed to subscribers, so one of my jobs was to run a machine called an Address-O-Graph that was used to stamp an address onto an individual newspaper. The device looked somewhat like an old sewing machine, but instead of a needle and thread, a stack of stencil cards would feed through on a track while an ink pad came down to print the address while the operator fed papers through manually — adding a paper with the left hand and pulling it out with the right in a fluid motion. Running the machine required some hand-eye coordination and knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of the device as it was always jamming or breaking down.
I remember being mesmerized by the Rube-Goldberg like typesetting machines called Linotypes. My grandfather owned three at one point. They were made of cast iron and stood taller than a person. There were no protective covers to obscure their inner workings or dangerous moving parts The keys looked like a typewriter, but they were attached to long levers that when pushed, triggered a single letter to drop from a vault and down a chute. Multiple keystrokes combined to form a word. After a line was completed, hot lead would pour into the mold formed by the letters to create one line of type. The operator continued this process over and over until an entire galley of text was assembled.
Those galleys were combined with other pieces of larger type forming headlines and they in turn joined other columns, photo etchings or artwork to make up a large setup the size of a newspaper page. All the pieces were then locked into place in a metal frame called a form. Dozens of these heavy pages would be required, one for each page of the paper. Those flats were then bolted into the undercarriage of the press side by side for the run.
I found the process fascinating.
Surprisingly the old letterpress that printed the Bulletin for decades was not retired because it had worn out, but because it became difficult to purchase the huge rolls of paper it required. Hard to imagine, but the rolls needed for that press were over 100 inches long.
As a result, The News-Bulletin was forced to upgrade to an offset printing press, that used smaller more available rolls of paper. Shorter, lighter rolls were not the only advantage of an offset press. The new press took up less space and allowed for more pages to be printed in a single run. The printing plates were thin sheets of metal instead of the heavy flats of lead type.
One of my jobs on the new press was to pull finished newspapers off the folder at the end of the line for bundling before handing them off to paperboys waiting on the lawn outside the building. Keep in mind this was done while the press continued to run. It was always a race — boy against the machine — I would often be dripping in sweat by the end of the run.
Offset printing required a different process for creating the pages of type. It was all paper based. I eventually learned how to operate the photo typesetting equipment and how to paste the sheets they produced into layouts. I eventually graduated to making negatives of those pages and burning the printing plates in a darkroom. Those skills were very helpful in getting other good paying jobs at similar printing operations when I left home to go to college in 1975.
I enjoyed learning about all of the new processes. They all seemed to makes sense at the time as costs of production and the manpower needs were reduced. The margins for turning a profit were always tight and weighing the benefits of an investment in new technology against the potential savings was always a serious consideration. I don’t remember anyone being laid off by my grandfather because of the changes, but it was true that an opening created by a retirement might go unfilled.
Competitive pressures, economic realities of a small town and other factors led my grandfather and father to sell the newspaper as I was preparing to graduate from high school. The masthead lived on for many years but was eventually absorbed by the Hagadone Media Group and has since ceased to exist as a distinct publication.
Happily the commercial printing company lives on as Selkirk Press under my sister Wesley Dustman’s leadership, continuing a three generation tradition in Sandpoint, Idaho.
Living through all these early trials and tribulations provided an early lesson in the role that new technology, business efficiencies and economic factors would play in my life and the lives of people I worked with as I followed my own career path over the years.
I always enjoyed making friends with the back shop workers. When I started at The Register-Guard there were dozens of typesetters, layout artists, platemakers, pressman and distribution workers involved in the process.
Most of those jobs are now gone or have been outsourced. Much of the process is electronic. Writers, photographers and advertising salespeople put their contributions into a database and producers in another city combine them into a newspaper using a computer. The finished layouts are then transmitted to a facility in yet another location to be printed.
Counting student publications, I have worked at eight different newspapers during my career. It is sobering to contemplate the changes that the industry has undergone in just my lifetime.
Despite the ups and downs, I have been fortunate to stay employed as a journalist all these years. Local reporters and photographers are still required to gather the information that makes a newspaper a hometown product. Whether the business model can continue to support those content creators is an open question.
Change is the only constant I suppose. The forces in play are beyond my control unfortunately. I do hope the fourth estate can find a way to survive it all. Newspapers have been an important part of my life, but they also play a vital role in helping hold together the fabric of the communities we live in.
Please subscribe to your local newspaper.
Chris Pietsch is the director of photography for Gannett Newspapers in Oregon, The Register-Guard in Eugene and the Statesman Journal in Salem.
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