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Stopping the Presses

1981. The New Haven Register moved from a small office on Orange and Audobon to 40 Sargent Drive, a former shirt factory. Busloads of people came to tour the new state-of-the-art Goss Metroliner printing presses. New Haven was the industry showroom. Rockwell International, the company that manufactured Goss Metroliners, featured the Register’s pressmen on the cover of its 1982 catalogue with the headline “Winning Team in New Haven.” In the picture, you can see the men’s reflections in the gleaming floors.

Today, the floors are black and slippery, covered in ink. According to the Register’s press manager, Frank Malicki, the custodians stopped cleaning the floors about three or four years ago, which is how he knew the Journal Register East Company (the Register’s corporate owner, known as the JRC) would close down the printing press. “How did I know? The same thing happened on Orange Street.” Thirty-odd jobs at the press will be outsourced to the Hartford Courant’s plant over the course of four weeks. The press’s last run will be on March 4. Malicki started working for the Register as a sixteen-year-old delivery boy in 1970. When I asked him about the future, he said, “I don’t know. I need a job.”

This closure is one more sign of the transition from print to digital media, which has thrown the traditional news industry into chaos. But the Register has been struggling for a long time. Since the Jackson brothers, Richard and Lionel, sold the newspaper in 1986, there have been three corporate takeovers, a bankruptcy filing, and dozens of layoffs. The 200,000-square-foot building at 40 Sargent Drive is now mostly empty. Last August, the trouble also affected editorial management. Longtime editor Jack Kramer, a thirty-year veteran, was replaced by Matt DeRienzo.

Now, according to Paul Bass, the editor of the New Haven Independent, the Register “is at the forefront of trying to re-invent for-profit journalism.” Digital journalism is the paper’s long-term strategy. In 2010, the newspaper gave every reporter a video camera. In addition, DeRienzo wants the paper to interact with an empowered online readership. He answers questions on online forums. As publisher of the Torrington Register Citizen, he invited the public to editorial meetings, which he streamed online through a live video feed. He also supervised the paper’s move to a downtown location that is both newsroom and coffee shop, a place where the public can interact with reporters as they work. DeRienzo hopes to make similar changes at the Register.

Closing the press will allow the Register to focus its resources on expanding its online presence. Bobby Suraci, the shift manager, estimates that lighting the press alone costs $20,000 a month. Add the costs of paper, ink, manpower, and plates, and printing becomes incredibly expensive, to the tune of $975,000 a year.

Although DeRienzo is the public face of the digital transition at the Register, he did not know what day the press would close, its location in the building, or whether any of the pressmen had jobs lined up. “A lot of people in the front have never even come back here,” Suraci said. “They’re a few doors away and they have no idea we’re back here.”

This separation between the newsroom and the pressroom is not unique to the Register, but it is difficult to ignore in light of the press’s imminent closure. The paper’s new editor is looking toward the future and is less concerned with the history of the business. At the time of writing, only one other person had visited the presses. When I asked DeRienzo about historical records, he jokingly answered, “Your article!”
The press is huge. It cuts through three floors and extends roughly the length of a football field. It is incredibly loud, forcing everyone to shout to be heard; it makes the floor vibrate and it is fast. When I visited, it was churning out forty thousand papers an hour, a visual whir. The future of this particular press, once the pride of the Register, is unknown. “I hope I’m wrong,” Malicki said, “but they’ll probably scrap it for metal.”

In accordance with Connecticut law, the paper’s publisher notified the state of the imminent layoff of 105 employees. DeRienzo estimates that roughly seventy-five of them are part-time or short-term employees who work in the mailroom or in delivery. The others are the pressmen, the electricians, the plate-makers, and the machinists. They stand to lose the most.

Malicki has stories. He remembers how Lionel Jackson would send him down the street to deliver ten thousand dollars in cash, and he remembers a catastrophic ink spill that left stains on the walls still visible today. Suraci started working one year after Malicki, in 1971. “I need health benefits,” Suraci said. “If it wasn’t for that, I’d take severance and unemployment and try to ride it out.” Many of the younger men have families to support and need to find work immediately.

State law is supposed to give communities a chance to deal with layoffs, but it has had no effect on the Register’s pressmen. A few will stay behind until May to decommission the press, which seems to mean scrubbing out all of the ink that has accumulated over the years. According to Suraci, two men have jobs lined up in Hartford. The rest are putting out résumés and going to interviews. The likelihood of finding more printing work is grim. “Will I go into the printing business? Probably not, ’cause it’s a dying business,” Suraci said. “It’s the end of an era for us. It’s sad in a way, but you can see how the future is going.”

Like the reporters in the newsroom, these men have been watching that future apprehensively for years as technology and the industry have changed. When Malicki started, the presses were still using lead plates, and there were over seventy men working in the pressroom, one for every unit. The Register sold its second printing press in the late 1990’s, and Suraci explained that the papers are now barely half their former width—down from sixty-four inches to the current standard of thirty-four inches—to save money. The paper storage room has never had any extra space, until now. The Register is trying to use up its inventory.

On one of the walls in the pressroom, the men have tacked up lists of all the printing presses that have closed in the United States since 2005. (According to Frank, the number is 120 since 2009.) One pressman scrawled, “WHO CARES?” Another pressman said, “We’re all dinosaurs.” I asked him about his plans in four weeks. He laughed. “Go to Disney World!”

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