Getting the paper out

Columnist : Albert Paschall

Thirty years ago I started my first newspaper job.  A senior in high school I was hired as the proof-boy for the daily Times Herald in Norristown, Montgomery County.  At that time the paper was delivered in the afternoon.  My job was to run around after school covered with ink all over me delivering ad and news proofs off the ancient manual galley press and I loved it.  I’m lucky though that I got promoted because I would have long ago been replaced by a fax machine or e-mail.
How I got promoted is another story.  In ‘71 an iron willed and tight fisted publisher named Bob McCracken managed the paper.  There were two ways to do things at the paper: Bob’s way or hit the highway.  At McCracken’s newspaper females were for features, fashion and food sections and a computer was some electronic monster that fowled up advertising bills.  McCracken had one rule: the paper always got out on time.  Exclusive rights to cover Armageddon wouldn’t delay the Times Herald’s presses a minute past 11:15 AM.  Almost every morning he’d bellow “let’s go! got to get the paper out” over and over again at editors, pressmen, truck drivers and the proof-boy.
In September of that year the tail end of a hurricane hit Norristown.  A stream near the plant overflowed its banks filling the composing and press rooms in the basement with a foot of water.  While the normal people left the paper I hung around up in my cubbyhole in the attic mainly because the bridge to my hometown was closed.  I figured I’d spend the night up there and nobody would care.  I was dozing around 11 when McCracken showed up in wading boots with flashlight in hand.  “What the hell are you doing here?”  Terrified I blurted out “got to get the paper out.” “Let’s do it” he said.
With a foot of water on the floor we couldn’t risk a short circuit so we worked with flashlights and penknives through out the long night on the old fashioned lead-plated pages.  By dawn when the rest of the staff began to wander in we had all the sections ready except for main news though we had already roughed out page one for storm photos and stories.  The water still hadn’t subsided and two nearby papers, The Mercury in Pottstown and The Reporter in Lansdale offered to bail us out with their presses.  I drove the page plates to Pottstown and the presses ran at 11:15.  At the age of 17 it was high adventure, we were getting the paper out.
Today newspapers all over Pennsylvania are weathering another storm well.  This onslaught isn’t meteorological its technological.  It’s called the Internet.  In the early ‘90s when the World Wide Web stormed the world financial experts wrote the newspaper industry’s obituary.
However in Pennsylvania, as journalist Mark Twain wrote, “reports of my demise are somewhat premature.”  At least according to preliminary results of a survey of the state’s newspaper editors that was conducted this month by Pennsylvania’s Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research.  Forty-four percent of editors in the Commonwealth reported that circulation was up in the last year and 51% said advertising revenue increased at the same time.  And while an average of 20% of the editors polled indicated that subscriptions and ads were down, only 8% had their budgets for news staff cut.
Preliminary findings of the survey have 72% of the state’s daily and weekly newspaper editors reporting that they have at least some of their news content on the Internet.  While the publicly held media giants have 80% of their newspapers in cyberspace, 65% of the privately owned newspapers have used new technologies to lure readers to the real thing and it seems to be working.
Pennsylvania’s crafty editors are using the storm that was supposed to short circuit their efforts to grow.  From advanced systems like the Pocono Record’s on-line delivery service to the Gettysburg Times’ archival research, Internet services seem to be capturing more newspaper readers in the state.  Ad revenue is coming into the systems with retailers realizing that the way to get the jump on competition is the way they always have, through advertising in their local newspaper, and now through its website.
As for me [email protected]  gets the headlines at  when I get up in the morning and turn on the computer.  About an hour later when the sun comes up and the paper hits my doorstep I know what my priority reading will be.
Pennsylvania’s editors are proving that the Internet is not inevitable for newspapers.  The reminiscence of our existence, our marriages, the births of our children, even our deaths as ink on paper are the gateway to the vague mutual existence that we call community.  Statistics are the business of computers, human milestones are the business of newspapers.  That human intervention in technology that we call editors are the touchstones to perspective on the institutions of our times, in the world that begins at our front door.  In that creativity and perspective Pennsylvania’s newspapers have weathered the storm successfully.  They’re getting the paper out and undoubtedly will be for some days to come.