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The end of an era as Tampa Bay Times plant prints its final papers

For more than half a century, newspapers were produced at the St. Petersburg facility.
Presses run at the Tampa Bay Times printing plant in St. Petersburg.
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Presses run at the Tampa Bay Times printing plant in St. Petersburg. [ Brian James, brianjamesgallery.com ]
Published Mar. 3
Updated Mar. 6

ST. PETERSBURG — An old analog clock, hung crooked over the rolls of newsprint, let the night’s sparse crew know they had time yet until deadline. On a Saturday night, nearing 8 o’clock, it was still quiet in the reel room, beneath the dormant presses.

Ladda Peterson laid a pattern of red tape on the blank, white bales, setting them up for an unbroken scroll. The halls were hollow as staffers burned vacation time, but like everybody still here, she was used to making do with less. As always, the press crew was ready: “Bombs” of ink, thick and pungent as classroom paint, were hooked up. Ribbons of paper were strung along rollers. And the next day’s pages were beginning to arrive.

What starts in spiral notebooks has for six decades come here, to the Tampa Bay Times’ printing plant, to be stamped into something you can hold. Phone calls and tips turned into stories, the first drafts of the first draft of history — those get combed over and neatened on digital pages. In a dizzying overnight transformation, stories end up folded on front yards before early light.

About 9 p.m., in a room as bright as airport security, machines hissed and burned Sunday’s pages into perfect stamps. Headlines appeared ghostlike on anodized aluminum plates. Each is designed to snap onto cylinders, so ink can press onto rubber and rubber onto newsprint, just so.

“Pretty close,” said Kevin McTier, flipping through a stack of identical plates, each bound for one of the quartet of inks — cyan, magenta, yellow and black — that together would turn out a single page. In red Sharpie, he ticked boxes, showing what still remained. He spot-checked with precision, himself another essential gear in a machine that now faces its own unforgiving deadline.

Come Saturday, these old presses will print their final paper. They’ll be mined for parts and scrapped. The building’s buyer will decide whether to knock the whole place down. About 150 people will lose their jobs. And the Times will come to readers on trucks from Lakeland.

“Tuesday’s my last day,” said Marty Butcher, leaning on the plate-maker, waiting on one more page.

“Celebrate, celebrate!” said manager Lannis Thomas.

“I don’t know,” Butcher said. “I wanted to be here 15 more years.”

They watched the clock. Finally, conveyors carried Page 7C to the men in steel-toed boots.

“Four-star starter is in the plant,” came a fuzzy announcement over the loudspeaker. “9:35,” Thomas said, marking the minute.

Butcher pushed open the timeworn doors and said, “You ready?”

The magic of those machines

The people who made this place run got used to hair infused with ink and fingertips stained black. The beauty of the presses became familiar. The paper flowed so fast it blurred.

They got used to picking up newspapers on vacation and noting that at the Times, margins would never have been this unbalanced, color never so sloppy.

They got used to routines, the churn of stories above their heads, carried away on conveyors. It was the daily miracle, as the bosses liked to call it, and as with most routine acts of wonder, it became something one took for granted.

A recent front page runs through the presses.
A recent front page runs through the presses. [ Brian James, brianjamesgallery.com ]

For reporters in the newsroom, it could be easy to forget the mechanics that brought their stories to the doorsteps of hundreds of thousands of people in the small hours of a Sunday morning. But to be there, watching the presses, came close to magic.

For a world now wedded to news served quickly online, the printed paper may seem a relic. But inside the big, beige building behind the Thornton’s on 34th Street, there was a press whose endurance made it a veteran of a dying art. Outside, all that dark pavement used to be full of cars, for nights when 400-some employees filled a building so alive that its walls would vibrate.

When the St. Petersburg Times’ plant was built in the late 1950s, the paper ran a 36-page special section. “Like the great pyramid of Egypt,” a reporter wrote, the new plant was a grand symbol, “a functioning monument” for readers alive and unborn.

In the 1970s, the paper won international awards for color printing. Hiring ads ran near-daily: “Get in on the ground floor of the newspaper of tomorrow.” The mood rose well into the new century, expansion after expansion.

In the late 2000s, drivers could feel the bundles getting thinner as ads dried up. Whole sections began to disappear, and layoffs slashed the staff. Drivers used to ferry truckloads to Tallahassee. The furthest route, lately, was Citrus. Last April, the seven-day paper became a twice-weekly affair.

On Jan. 6, staring down ad revenues in freefall, Times CEO Paul Tash announced that the plant and its 27 acres were going on the market. The Times would outsource printing operations, hoping to pay down debt. The same day, the last trainload of newsprint from Canada pulled up to the warehouse doors.

“My heart hurts for them,” Tash wrote in a Times letter of the employees. “But there is no turning back to the days when those magnificent presses were humming seven nights a week.”

Related: Meet some of the staffers who brought you the Tampa Bay Times

So many newspaper plants have met this fate, most recently socked by a pandemic that only intensified their financial stress. The Times joins the ranks of the Miami Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer and Kansas City Star.

As the making of the paper moves to Lakeland, deadlines will lurch earlier. The paper will get narrower to accommodate those presses. A skeleton crew from the Times plant will start making the long commute.

People here say they aren’t surprised, but they hadn’t seen the end coming so soon. Many arrived as 19- and 20-year-olds who stumbled into a career that ended up paying for their kids’ tuition. After years of layoffs, a few feel the relief of a certain end. Some can retire. Others are scrambling.

Most say they have no bitterness, used to working behind the scenes, delivering a product that never bore their names. But the hastened breakup hurts.

McTier looks at the towering presses he came to know so well and thinks, “What’s going to happen to you?”

Closing in on the final run

“Ready on 7 and 9,” the loudspeaker boomed, and the buzzing and clanging of alarms began to sound. Across two presses, the crew had 172,675 papers to print.

A web of paper strung into the ceiling spun along its route. Yesterday’s pale, end-of-run pages gave way to Sunday’s first spoils. Color by color, then cut and folded, copies came slowly at first, emerging tie-dyed and overinked. Butcher tapped a screen to adjust the balance of ink to water, water to ink. He and his colleagues flipped fast through still-damp pages. Some headlines came too dark, some ads too light. Some pages came stained and blotchy. Balance, adjust. Check the page numbers. Check the smallest alignments, the tiniest bleeds.

At his press, they got the paper in shape fast. Within minutes, Butcher flipped a switch. A team member bent down to make a gap in the flow of papers. Downstream, the bundlers and packagers would know copies after that gap were ready to sell. The pages flew by crisp, born headline first, under the Times’ black banner.

They cranked up the speed. Even within the hush of earplugs, the press roared like a plane about to lift off. Its force shook the catwalk. Mists of ink and paper dust colored the air, coated the railings.

29,400 copies an hour.

35,400 copies an hour.

45,700 copies an hour.

When the presses are humming, the pages are a blur.
When the presses are humming, the pages are a blur. [ Brian James, brianjamesgallery.com ]

Butcher flipped the pages. Inside Local & State, a black smear blotched a columnist’s face. He added more water to the mix. A small, black streak in a margin on Sports, same thing. A sign read:

PRIDE

MAKE IT ONCE

MAKE IT RIGHT

A sign encourages workers at the plant.
A sign encourages workers at the plant. [ Brian James, brianjamesgallery.com ]

Faded posters hung by control panels, cautioning of myriad snags and jams. Earlier in the week, the crew had battled a half-dozen crises in one night as paper tore and halted the run. Some nights, someone important dies, or a championship or election is won, and the presses grind to a stop. The newsroom works up new pages and new plates get printed, the staff moving with deadly seriousness.

Even with breaking news, power outages and beaches inundated during Hurricane Irma, the Times has never broken an inviolate law: Send the paper to press.

Below, in the reel room, workers changed out rolls. Along the paper’s flow, copies were shuffled into piles, strapped into bundles, then kicked along a belt. On the loading dock, workers wheeled carts into the shells of trucks.

By a quarter after 11, they had some 55,000 papers outstanding. Then, in a little ad in a corner of 10C, Butcher saw the blue ink sliding out of place. The press exhaled to a stop. A replacement plate arrived. They swapped it for the misaligned one, then revved back up to speed. Just a blip.

At the other press, with the clock showing 15 minutes left in the run, McTier rubbed his hands together, pleased. Not even midnight. It had been an unremarkable night, really, smooth as could be, except for how close it fell to the end.

He readied the rags for the wipe down and, soon, hit a button labeled the COME ON DOWN HORN. Beep, beeeep, it sounded, and the paper slowed in its web. The press began to hiss, relieving the night’s pressure. The docks had long since emptied. The last truck readied to leave.

Peterson bent to scrape gobs of spilled ink into a trough. A battered boombox played 98ROCK while McTier sang, “Another brick in the wall ...

They dipped gray rags into a mix of water and solvent and scrubbed away the day’s ink and headlines. They piled spent plates into a bin. Alarms rang as the rollers moved until all was blank, the web restrung, for the next run.

“Anybody else ready to go home?” McTier said. “It must be that time.”

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